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The science of stress

Kieri Karpa, Layout Manager

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Dealing with stress may be the hardest thing a person can do.

Stress, defined by Merriam Webster as “physical, chemical, or emotional factors that cause bodily or mental tension”, can be found everywhere in life. Dealing with that stress in a positive way can be extremely difficult.

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According to the Center for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS), stressors are anything that causes the release of stress hormones. These things can be physiological or psychological in origin and can fall into one of two categories, absolute stressors or relative stressors.  Absolute stressors are universally seen as stressful, whereas relative stressors are things that only some people see as stressful.

Whether they are absolute or relative stressors, the same thing happens biologically in all humans when faced with stress. A hormone, cortisol, is released from the pituitary gland. When released, it finds receptors throughout the body to relay the message of what the body needs to do.

Cortisol is always in our bodies. It is released in order for us to do many of our normal, everyday functions. A resting (or basal) cortisol level is the amount of cortisol needed for a human to function, but when faced with a stressor, cortisol levels rise which is called the reactive cortisol level.

Although too much stress can be bad, some stress can actually be good for you, according to Health.com. Short term stress is not only good for your brain, but it can also help with immunity and motivation levels.

In the brain, low levels of stress can cause the release of neurotrophins, a chemical that strengthens the connections in the brain. These strengthened connections can lead to a temporary boost of memory and learning scores.

Just as in the brain, short term stress can cause the release of beneficial substances throughout the body. One substance released is interleukins. This chemical regulates the immune system, but in excess amounts, it temporarily boosts immunity by causing the mobilization of immune cells in the blood stream.

Another benefit of short term stress is increased motivation. Low stress levels can cause a heightened level of awareness that will cause a person to be completely absorbed into whatever activity was stressing them out in the first place. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this state of heightened awareness is known as “flow” and is largely caused by the pressure to succeed.

Brains and motivation are not the only benefits to short term stress, it can also be beneficial for resilience, both mentally and biologically. According to Richard Shelton, the vice chair of research for the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alabama Birmingham, overcoming low levels of stress can help you cope with larger levels of stress in the future, which improves resilience. Low levels of stress is also beneficial for biological resilience because it can protect DNA from oxidative damage. Oxidative damage, according to MedicalNews.net, is destruction to the body caused by oxidants (O2-,H2O2, etc.) that can lead to health issues such as Parkinson’s disease.

As low levels of stress can greatly benefit the body, chronic stress can be extremely hazardous. According to the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit medical research group, chronic stress is a threat for your health.

Chronic stress can cause the body’s natural stress system to go haywire. This results in too many stress hormones flowing throughout the body. This puts you at risk for depression, anxiety, digestive problems, headaches, heart disease, sleeping problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.

Besides these effects, stress results in muscle tension throughout the body as well as other adverse effects, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). With small stressors, muscles tense until the stressor is gone, but with chronic stressors, the muscle tension can last causing headaches and muscle pains.

Although muscle tension is bad, there can be worse respiratory effects. When someone is stressed, they often breathe harder. Most people would be unaffected, but for people with asthma or lung problems, this can trigger asthma attacks or hyperventilation.

Like the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system is highly affected by stress. Stress causes an increased heart rate. With short term stress, this increased heart rate is not serious. However, with long term stress, an increased heart rate can have lasting repercussions. The long increase of heart rate can lead to hypertension, heart attack, or stroke.

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Since stress has so many bad effects, learning how to successfully manage stress is necessary. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), there are many effective ways to deal with stress.

One technique the ADAA suggests is stepping back from the situation. Taking time to think through the situation allows the brain to come up with new solutions it otherwise would be unable to find in our fast paced world, according to Huffington Post.

Another ADAA suggested technique is deep breathing. Deep breaths can alter the pH of the blood and change blood pressure, according to National Public Radio (NPR). More than that, deep breathing has been shown to train the body to depend the production of stress hormones as deep breaths can trigger a “parasympathetic reaction — [which is] the one that calms us down.”

The ADAA also suggests talking to someone (a friend, therapist, parent,etc.) about whatever is stressing you. Talking it out can often address the root of the problem as opposed to bottling up the problem and dealing with the effects of chronic stress, according to BluePage.org.  

There are many ways to healthily deal with stress. The most important thing about dealing with stress is finding the way that works for you. Long term stress has many negative effects on health and mood, so dealing with stress in the short term is better for both your body and mind.

If you would like to see a therapist or mental health professional, go here.

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The science of stress