The Science of Stress

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Kyle Dent
Incoming A.S. Beat Reporter

Whether they’re an incoming freshman or four weeks from graduation, a political science major or in the College of Engineering — a student athlete, club leader, poet, filmmaker, or surfer extraordinaire — everyone here seems to be dealing with the same thing: consistent, ever-present stress.

According to the American Psychological Association, 61 percent of college students report anxiety and stress; on everyone’s mind is a plethora of papers, partner work, and non-descript “projects.” What is stress, though? What separates true “stress” from simple annoyance, and how does the body react when exposed to it for prolonged periods of time?

Surprisingly, stress isn’t inherently “good” or “bad.” Whenever someone experiences excitement in any way, be it from getting a job interview, dropping their laptop, or earning a C on a midterm, their body enters a “fight or flight” mode where it sends endorphins and hormones throughout the body.

These hormones can actually be beneficial in small bursts, raising your heart rate, readying muscles, and increasing how much oxygen your body gets. You’re more ready to tackle the problem in front of you. However, repeated, long term stress ‒ usually stemming from issues not immediately solvable ‒ can cause long term consequences for your body.

To enter a state of stress, your hypothalamus (the hub of your central nervous system) makes your adrenal glands send out cortisol and adrenaline, two main stress hormones. This sends blood rushing to the muscles, heart, brain, and other organs to put them in a state of overdrive so they work harder to solve the present issue.

When the “danger” is gone, the hormones stop traveling through the body, and you go back to normal. However, when the stressor doesn’t leave, perhaps in the case of a long-term issue, these organs continue in an overworked state, not getting the rest they need.

This results in an incredible multitude of problems for your body. You may get headaches from the body sending resources to places other than your brain. You can also develop bad eating habits, like overeating to continue the stream of resources to supply your body, or undereating, because your body feels too scared and busy for that.

The constant stream of blood and tensing of muscles doesn’t do the body much good, either. You breathe much faster to acquire more oxygen for your blood, but after a while, this makes it much more of a chore to breathe.

Since your body is trying to spread that blood everywhere it can, your heart pumps more rapidly, and tightens blood vessels to send blood to the important places quicker. If this lasts a long time, however, it increases blood pressure. This creates a suite of problems for the body, the biggest being a higher risk for a heart attack or stroke.

Outside of what stress does to you directly, the strengthening of other systems requires a weakening of others. Your nervous system deprioritizes the immune system, making your body more susceptible to sickness and foreign bodies. In addition, when you do ultimately get sick, your body will take more time to heal.

In addition to all these physical issues — including acne break-outs, intestinal issues, and pure exhaustion — there’s a whole horde of emotional and mental effects. One may begin to hear ringing in their ears, stuttering, experience panic attacks, or fail to sleep at night.

An overworked brain can also have trouble remembering new information, have difficulty making decisions, create anxiety for itself, and engage in obsessive or compulsive behaviors. It can even have trouble communicating, which can lead to isolation and withdrawal from society.

There’s also a correlation between stress and clinical depression, which can lead to reduced productivity and thoughts of suicide. Depression can also lead to frustration and mood swings.

If that wasn’t enough, many of these symptoms of stress can induce stress. You may be so stressed that you forget to turn in an assignment, which will lead to more anxiety. You may get so sick that you have trouble going to work, which may mean financial issues and more stress in the future.

These issues aren’t relegated to those who work incredibly high stress jobs or roles either. Around 75 percent of Americans report that they live with either physical or emotional symptoms of stress, and 33 percent say they live with “extreme stress.” This is a widespread, systematic issue. Nearly everyone is worried, all the time.

Unlike our prehistoric ancestors who needed stress responses to survive, we deal with lingering issues across hours, days, and months. People marinate in their stress, and are expected to continue operating while dealing with all these debilitating effects. This is clearly unsustainable. People need to take action to take care of themselves and make themselves happy so they do not burn out entirely.