The end of term is fast approaching, and you’ve got summatives looming. Essays are beginning to pile up, homework questions, lab reports, you name it.
Maybe just thinking about it now you’re beginning to tense up. You’re starting to feel stressed. Your amygdala, a little cluster of cells in your brain’s temporal lobe, is sending distress signals to your hypothalamus, which is getting you ready for action.
“The stress response is a normal adaptive coping response that evolved over hundreds of millions of years to help our ancestors avoid sticks and get carrots,” says Dr Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author. When we get stressed, our body can’t tell the difference between finishing that summative or preparing to fight or flee from a predator.
So what exactly happens in our bodies when we get stressed? Once your amygdala has sent its signal, the hypothalamus stimulates production of a cocktail of hormones, primarily adrenaline to increase your heart rate, blood pressure and energy levels, and cortisol, to trigger glucose release into your bloodstream and suppress less urgent bodily functions, like digestion. Your blood vessels constrict. Your pituitary gland releases hormones that stimulate your thyroid gland to produce thyroxine, to increase your metabolic rate, blood-sugar levels, respiration, heart rate and blood pressure.
All of these are essential for a quick burst of energy, to help you deal with the stressful stimulus. But the thyroxine also boosts your metabolism, meaning you use up nutrients too quickly, in particular B vitamins. You excrete chemicals which normally keep you calm, like magnesium.
“It’s natural,” continues Hanson. “What’s also natural, though — and you see it in the wild — is that most stressful episodes are resolved quickly, one way or another. The natural biological, evolutionary blueprint is to have long periods of mellow recovery after bursts of stress.”
In the absence of the deadlines we face on a day-to-day basis, stress is a good thing. It gets you ready to face danger, and certain amounts are needed to motivate you to get out of bed and do things during the day. However, too much of it can become a problem. Prolonged stress increases our risk of physical health problems like headaches, stomach pain, suppressed ovulation, high blood pressure, and even risk of stroke or heart attack, as well as increased risk of viral infections. Psychologically you’ll suffer too, from feelings of distrust, anger, anxiety and fear. High levels of stress may even shrink your hippocampus, which is responsible for your long-term memory – not great for exam season!
“When too much cortisol is hitting the brain for an elevated amount of time,” says Holly Lucille, a naturopathic physician and author. “You start to create something called hippocampal brain damage, and the results of this are disturbed circadian rhythms: your sleep-wake cycle is disturbed. You get moody, and you get memory loss, brain fog.”
Luckily, there are a few things you can do reduce your stress levels. We all know the drill, but here’s why they help. A burst of exercise like a short jog or walk makes your hypothalamus and pituitary gland produce endorphins, which make you feel good and can boost self-confidence, mood and sleep quality, and lower your risk of depression, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and risk of early death by 30%. The positive feeling you get when you release endorphins is said to be similar to that stimulated by morphine, since endorphins bind to the same neuron receptors as some painkillers. They act as analgesics, which diminish the perception of pain, and as sedatives.
Meditation stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which slows heart rate, increases intestinal activity and relaxes your muscles. It can reduce frantic neurological activity in the amygdala, and shift the activity to the neocortex, which is involves in higher-order brain functions like sensory perception, cognition, motor commands, spatial reasoning and language.
For a short term fix, try lowering your heart rate by taking a few deep breaths, or distracting yourself for a minute by concentrating on the good things around you, or focusing in on your senses, especially touch and smell. Trying a few of these can help you lower your stress level, which will benefit your health long-term, and also help you to work better now.
So, take a deep breath, smell the roses and everything will be just fine.