Lab reports, traffic, confusing social interactions, oh my! Stress is often something accepted as a normal part of everyday college life with deadlines and exams etc. Then, after college it is often accepted as a normal part of everyday life with careers, family, money etc.
Why are we being so passive in our stress management? Who decided that stress is something we constantly succumb to? The fact is, stress takes a toll not only on our mental health, but also on our physical health. Life can be over stimulating and overwhelming. Learning how to lessen sources of stress and managing the inevitable stress of living is a critical aspect of life.
Stress manifests physically in many ways throughout the body both acutely and chronically. With the sudden onset of stress, muscles tense up and then pass once the stress passes.
With chronic stress, the muscles never really release this tension and maintain a constant state of tautness. These long periods of time without muscle relaxation can trigger other issues such as headaches or soreness. Stress can also affect the respiratory system, making breathing harder. Very intense acute stress can even cause hyperventilation such as with a panic attack. Therefore, it is important to keep these muscles and breathing patterns in check. For example, after finishing that exam that’s been hanging over your head for the past week don’t go straight to the library to start on your next project. Take some time to sit in a comfortable space and assess your body and mind. Do your muscles feel loose and fluid or wound up with worry? Use breathing patterns to refocus and unwind.
Also, the endocrine system plays a huge role in your body’s natural response to stress. The endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce hormones which regulate many things in the body including metabolism, growth, reproduction, sleep, and moods. The two hormones associated with stress include epinephrine and cortisol.
With acute stress, such as a car recklessly pulling in front of you on the interstate, the adrenal medulla in your brain releases epinephrine into the blood which causes the liver to produce more glucose into your muscles. This gives you the energy for a “fight or flight” response.
With chronic stress, such as stress associated with college, the adrenal cortex in your brain releases cortisol which circulates and causes an increase glucose production. Studies have shown that if you learn to manage stress, you can control your blood sugar levels nearly as much as with medication. This is important for people vulnerable to Type 2 Diabetes as many Americans are.
So how does one manage stress? As you read above, our body is constantly working to deal with this stress and maintain homeostasis. So why not help your body out a little bit and take an active approach to stress management?
First, cut out unnecessary sources of stress. Of course, there will always be the basic sources of stress such as putting a roof over your head or acquiring food. This is true for every organism in the animal kingdom. But besides that, pick up healthy habits that relieve the exhausting buzz of reality. Try meditation or painting. Write out what you are feeling to release and transcend those emotions.
Scientific studies on the underlying changes in biological processes associated with changes in mental and physical health in response to meditation have shown that practicing mindfulness meditation for just 8 weeks can increase brain function and immune system functionality (Davidson 2003).
A different study showed that 65% of chronic pain patients who participated in a 10-week meditation program experienced a 33% decrease in their total pain rating (Kabat-Zinn 2004). There was also a significant reduction in mood disturbance.
Regardless of whether meditation is your outlet of choice or not, there are many options for dealing with stress such as being outdoors, creating art, or going out dancing. The key message is this: take a break.
Appreciate your accomplishments and recognize when you need more help. Maryville College has a counseling center on the third floor of Bartlett which is available to all students for free as well as a student relaxation center.