Midd MD: Stress

By Deirdre Sackett

It seems as though stress is par for the course during finals week. All of us are loaded up with exams and essays galore, along with expectations of success. However, the semi-permanent sense of dread and anxiety that most students will experience during the next week or two should not be a routine feeling.

Stress is a function governed by a branch of our nervous system called the sympathetic pathway. We do not exercise complete conscious control over the stress response. Rather, our brains and adrenal glands (located on the kidneys) produce norepinephrine and epinephrine, respectively, which cause the sweating, increased heart rate and jitters commonly experienced during stress. Stress evolved as a quick response to life-threatening situations and is known as the “fight or flight” response — the flood of chemicals readies your body to either fight or escape a brief danger, such as a lion attacking you.

However, in today’s world, there are no lions around to cause the stress response. Deadlines and expectations have replaced ferocious predators. While this may seem to be a beneficial lifestyle change in that we are now at the top of the food chain, bear in mind that the stress response was designed to be a rapid response to danger. Chronic exposure to stressors (such as looming final exams or essays) causes a prolonged stress response, which is not the way the body was intended to behave. This constant stress response can cause damage to the body in the long run.

Stress can also cause emotional eating, which is a leading cause of obesity. A study by Bennett et al. at University of Rhode Island investigated the eating habits of undergraduate students (mean age = 19). The study found that females’ emotional eating was triggered by stress, whereas males’ emotional eating was triggered by boredom or anxiety. During their emotional eating, both genders chose unhealthy foods. Sound familiar? While it can be said that reaching for a few M&Ms while reading your textbook can help give you an energy boost, downing two Dr. Feelgoods and a side of mozzarella sticks every time an exam rolls around probably will not help in the long run.

So, rather than drown your sorrows in Grille food, you decide to vent your frustrations on Facebook. Having a big social network and venting to your friends is supposed to be healthy, right? Well, it may not be as helpful as it seems. A 2012 study by Campisi et al. from Regis University in Colorado showed that Facebook-related stress affected most of its participants. In fact, incidences of upper respiratory infections increased with the size of the social network. Indeed, psychosocial stress causes changes to your body’s hormone and immune systems. Another study by Campisi et al. found that cortisol, a hormone that is released during the stress response, remains present in saliva long after the stressor is gone.

In addition, levels of immunoglobulin A (a protein used in the immune response) decrease significantly during the recovery period from chronic stress. So, while it may make you feel better to post about your three essays and two exams, perhaps you and your friends’ stresses are making you sick.

So what can be done about stress’ harmful effects on the body? The trick is to not be stressed all the time, plain and simple. It sounds obvious, but it is the truth. While the stress response is an essential aspect of the nervous system, measures can be taken to avoid the onset of this response and to control the behavior that results. So eat right, study what’s important, exercise often, manage your time well, meditate, laugh with friends and don’t forget to breathe.