Apr 19, 2010

How We Handle Stress

Student life can be full of stressful situations. Social pressures, academic demands, bloated schedules- there really isn’t a shortage of sources for stress. But it’s how we handle these situations that can really affect how we live. We’ve already looked at the importance of relaxation, so this week we’ll take a closer look at the inner workings of the stressed out student.

When people face a challenge, they can react in a pattern known as the “fight-or-flight” response. This is a hardwired biological process wherein the body basically prepares to either defend itself (“fight”) or run away (“flight”). The response includes rapid breathing and heart beat, dilation of the blood vessels, heightened reflexes, and just about everything else you would expect in preparation of a life-or-death situation. Unfortunately, the brain will trigger these types of reactions during everyday, physically non-threatening activities (like public speaking) - it treats talking in front of people and being eaten by a lion in the same fashion.

The fight-or-flight response is critical in certain situations (better reaction time in an auto accident) and annoying in others (sweating during a presentation). Some people actually find pleasure in seeking out very stressful situations. But when stress becomes ever-present (or, “chronic”), the body never has a chance to relax and will quickly deplete itself of vital resources by constantly triggering fight-or-flight.

While stress could stem from a variety of sources, the reaction is generally the same: first, the body produces adrenal hormones as the nervous system (heart rate, breathing, etc.) goes into overdrive. The body is put on full alert and every function works double-time. If the source of stress in not removed after this initial reaction, the body will start to lower adrenal output and try to adapt by utilizing the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates body function at rest. If the stress remains, the body will deplete itself of resources and eventually succumb to illness.

While individual personality can go a long way towards determining how you will react under stress, awareness of the stressors in your life and the way in which your body responds will help you become happier and healthier. Check out this post on a few ways to relax, and the next time you get stuck in traffic, remember- it’s not like you’re being eaten by a lion.

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