Stressed Inside and Out
Stress has affected us at some point in our lives. Whether it’s burning the midnight oil cramming for an exam, really tight assessment deadlines or dealing with very uncooperative group project members (luckily not in this semester’s group project). We’ve been there. But, with stress being a major component of many mental health diseases, we need to be aware of it.
I’m ironically stressed out as I’m writing this post. Author’s own image, taken by Veronica Voo.
The Science of Stress
Sometimes stress is necessary. It makes us alert and prepares our body for dire situations. Imagine you’re gathering berries in a thick forest, quietly foraging for your favourite berries. Suddenly you hear a rumble…from a bush.
The bush rustles.
Meanwhile in your brain, the hypothalamus-pituitary-amygdala (HPA) axis, is already working on the ‘fight or flight response’. The HPA axis mediates this through modifying the involuntary neural response and initiating the body’s release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
Your breathing rate increases. Breaths are frequent and shallow in an attempt to give more oxygen to the body and exhale carbon dioxide.
Stress also increases heart rate and blood pressure. With short-term stress, blood flow is prioritised to vital organs such as the brain and to skeletal muscles, delivering much needed oxygen.
Your muscles tense in an effort to reduce pain and injury from potential oncoming blows.
You look at the bear. The bear licks its lips.
Chronic Stress: A Modern Monster
Assuming that you’ve managed to not become a bear’s lunch, the stress response quickly subsides. But stress is only meant to be a short-term solution. Unfortunately, the body has similar responses to both emotional and physical threats. Chronic stress not only deteriorates mental health, but physical health too.
A study of Korean workers has shown that stress can suppress the immune inflammatory responses, making us more vulnerable to illness. No wonder that recently a nasty sore throat spread like wildfire amongst sleep deprived and stressed physiology students…including me.
Ever wondered why you can’t sleep well when you’ve got an exam coming up? That’s because stress also causes hyperarousal.
Chronic or repeated stress can also lead to headaches and migraines due repetitive muscle tension and damage blood vessels from high blood pressure.
How to Handle Stress?
So, what can you do to stop stress spiralling out of control? You could do the following:
- Sleep: It’s common knowledge that sleep deprived people are very irritable. Sleep is important for both mental and physical recovery. Studies have shown sleep deprivation decreases metabolism in areas of the brain responsible for mental alertness and cognitive performance. In addition, attention and performance also decrease.
- Exercise: It’s been shown to decrease stress and anxiety. A recent review discussed that exercise releases endorphins, the ‘happy chemical messenger’ in addition to improving psychological function.
- Mindfulness:It may sound like a new age hippie approach, but it can calm both the body and mind. It’s been shown that mindfulness and meditation can decrease blood pressure as much as aerobic exercise and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
In an age where chronic stress and mental health diseases are prevalent, the ability to manage stress is more important than ever.
If you’re in need of some guidance. The following resources are available:
Lifeline, call 131114
Beyond Blue, call 1300 22 4636
Unimelb Counselling and Psychological Services, call +61 3 8344 6927