The Science of Stress

We talk about stress a lot.

It’s a buzzword in the news, both digital and print. We hear it from our lecturers and support staff, from our parents and our friends. We’re reminded by helpful pamphlets and advertisements for every product under the sun to take care of ourselves and boy, do we need to. Students in particular live in a constant state of stress – third year has thus far been a cruel, cruel mistress. But what actually is it?

In terms of physics or mechanics, stress is a quantitive value that describes the internal force an object is experiencing per cross sectional area. I think that’s rather poetic and pretty apt in the vernacular usage too, if I’m being honest, but in a biological context a stress can be defined as an organism’s reaction to an environmental stimulus. These external stressors cause innate biological responses which act to fix, or simply just react to, whatever caused them. Mammals sweat to regulate thermal stress. Many kinds of plankton bioluminesce in relation to physical stress, caused by turbulence in the water column. And, at a more basic level, stressors which register as dangerous can stimulate that fabled, almighty ‘fight or flight’ response.

These reactions and more can be complex chemical cascades, involving and interweaving the entirety of the body’s systems under control of the sympathetic nervous system; this is part of the autonomic nervous system, which controls all unconscious actions, and differs from the parasympathetic nervous system, which deals with more ‘everyday’ unconscious actions such as sleeping, eating and digesting.

But thought it has let me recall happy memories of GCSE biology, this is all rather besides the point. Because the way we use the term stress nowadays – the way in which it affects us in the modern world – is a more complex version of this.

Because stress is a manifestation of our inability to cope.

Human beings in modern society are assaulted every day by the most intense list of intellectual, social and emotional demands that it’s not surprising that according to Health & Safety, 39% of all work related illness is related to stress, and that this was responsible for 11.3 million lost working days in 2013/14. Stress has a mammoth list of symptoms, which are caused due to real and perceived threats to your wellbeing. A majority of these symptoms are vague, and consequently also belong to other illnesses, which can pose a further risk to those who dismiss them unduly. 

Stress can leave you feeling emotionally distraught – irritable, anxious or low in self esteem. It can affect your sleep cycle and appetite, as well as causing you outright pain. Headaches and migranes, nausea and muscle tension are all also incredibly common. My shoulder and neck muscles would seize up so badly last year in the exam period that I could barely move them. What’s more, while by no means caused by stress, a high pressure environment is known to increase your risk level of cardiovascular disease. This may be due to psychological stress increasing the synthesis of key interleukins, which are involved in the acute-phase response and produce more or less plasma depending on body conditions, and elevated concentrations of which have been found in patients with acute coronary syndromes.

So, yes. Stress is our body’s way of telling us that things need to change. That they are getting too much. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of. People feel stressed in a hundred different ways for infinite reasons, and know for a fact that what I find stressful some people find invigoratingly motivating, and vice versa. The statistics for stress in young people are particularly worrying. A large scale survey of university students in the US in 2009 showed that while a staggering 85% of students said that they felt stressed on a daily basis, and with 77% saying that this stress was related to academic concerns, of the students surveyed 74% still reported feeling very or somewhat happy. The two are not mutually exclusive, and while small ups can seem all the better when you’re feeling bogged down, it can be difficult to seen real light at the end of the tunnel.

Sadly in our lives stopping stress is not so simple as remedying an environmental stressor – you can’t get rid of the combined pressure of academic success; extracurricular activities; commitments and jobs; maintaing healthy relationships; scraping together spare change and managing money; living well and consequently trying to remember to exercise, eat well and ensure some kind of semi-functioning sleep schedule; or at least not in a way that’s even remotely comparable to a fluffy animal’s fur standing on end to trap heat when it’s cold.

But there are ways to combat stress. It’s a rather sad commentary on the world that they are so many, so thoroughly studied, but I’m hoping in coming posts to break down the science behind a few of my favourites. They will explain some helpful methods, a number for which I can personally vouch, for dealing with the symptoms of stress, in addition to suggesting some stress minimising tactics.

(Not revision timetables, though. I’ve never been able to get behind those. They just stress me out more. It’s a recipe for self imposed panic).

It’s getting to the end of the semester. Remember to look after yourselves out there, everyone.

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