Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus. This is known as the “fight or flight” or mobilization stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you.
When stress is within your comfort zone, it can help you to stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you'd rather be watching TV. But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body.
When you need (or think you need) to defend yourself or run away from danger, your body prepares for mobilization. The nervous system rouses for emergency action—preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.
If mobilization fails, the body freezes instead, a response known as immobilization. In extreme, life-threatening situations, you may even lose consciousness, enabling you to survive high levels of physical pain. This can leave you traumatized or unable to move on.
The body’s nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events. If you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam on your commute, or a mountain of bills, for example, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-or-death situation.
When you repeatedly experience the mobilization or fight-or-flight stress response in your daily life, it can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can shut down your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, raise blood pressure, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to many mental and physical health problems.
The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, anything that puts high demands on you can be stressful. This includes positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.
Of course, not all stress is caused by external factors. Stress can also be internal or self-generated, when you worry excessively about something that may or may not happen, or have irrational, pessimistic thoughts about life.
Some common external causes of stress include major life changes, work or school, relationship difficulties, financial problems, being too busy, children and family. Common internal causes of stress may include chronic worry, pessimism, rigid thinking or lack of flexibility, negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations, and an all-or-nothing attitude.
We're all different. Some people seem to be able to roll with life’s punches, while others tend to crumble in the face of small obstacles or frustrations. Some people even thrive on the excitement of a high-stress lifestyle. For example, your morning commute may make you anxious and tense because you worry that traffic will make you late. Others, however, may find the trip relaxing because they allow more time and enjoy listening to music while they drive.
Your resiliency to stress depends on many factors, but there are steps you can take to improve your tolerance and handle more setbacks and challenges without becoming overwhelmed by stress.
Sometimes after experiencing a traumatic event that is especially frightening—including personal or environmental disasters, or being threatened with an assault—people have a strong and lingering stress reaction to the event. Strong emotions, jitters, sadness, or depression may all be part of this normal and temporary reaction to the stress of an overwhelming event.
Feeling emotional and nervous or having trouble sleeping and eating can all be normal reactions to stress. Engaging in healthy activities and getting the right care and support can put problems in perspective and help stressful feelings subside in a few days or weeks. Some tips for beginning to feel better are:
The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress. The more signs and symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
· Memory problems
· Inability to concentrate
· Poor judgment
· Seeing only the negative
· Anxious or racing thoughts
· Constant worrying
· Depression or general unhappiness
· Anxiety and agitation
· Moodiness, irritability, or anger
· Feeling overwhelmed
· Loneliness and isolation
· Other mental or emotional health problems
· Aches and pains
· Diarrhea or constipation
· Nausea, dizziness
· Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
· Loss of sex drive
· Frequent colds or flu
· Eating more or less
· Sleeping too much or too little
· Withdrawing from others
· Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
· Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
· Nervous habits (e.g. nail biting, pacing)
You probably spend most of the weeks leading up to finals staying up until 3:00 a.m., reading and re-reading a semester’s worth of notes, and downing coffee after coffee. But too much stress isn’t healthy, and the following ideas can help students slow down, de-stress, and have fun before finals start.
*A Time-Turner is a device used for time travel. It is a special timepiece which resembles an hourglass on a necklace. Harry Potter and Hermione Granger use a Time-turner.