Stress; Fight, Flight or Depression?
As nature celebrates Spring in flowers and beautiful colours, many of us will no doubt be getting excited about the fast approaching summer. However, it is also the long dreaded exam season for our stressed students. This brings me to our blog topic today – stress. Although, stress is primarily a biological response, it can be quite subjective as everyone will have different stimuli thus experiencing it differently. Elaborating further, stress is a biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with. A stressor is the stimulus that causes stress. In basic terms, stress is feeling under too much pressure. This pressure can be both emotional or physical, exam stress being a prime example.
We will not cover the biological responses and treatments of stress in this blog post, however, a part two will be posted next week focusing on the exact topic. In today’s blog, we will be focusing on the psychological responses and how it can affect your body if experienced chronically.
The reason why I want to touch on the topic of exam stress is because a lot students can sometimes put too much pressure on themselves thus reducing their productivity resulting in an inability to fulfil their full potential.
Lifesaving as the stress response is, it was meant to solve short-term, life-threatening problems, not extended difficulties such as daily traffic jams or marital problems. Prolonged or repeated arousal of the stress response, a characteristic of modern life, can have harmful physical and psychological effects, including heart disease and depression. Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines. However, an extreme amount of stress can have health consequences and adversely affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems.
The ‘stress hormone’ cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight. Chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells that turns them into a type of cell that inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex, which would improve learning and memory, but lays down durable scaffolding linked to anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Acute stress is the most common form of stress. It comes from demands and pressures of the recent past and anticipated demands and pressures of the near future for example preparing for exams. Acute stress is beneficial in small doses, but too much is exhausting. Overdoing on short-term stress can lead to psychological distress, tension headaches, upset stomach and other symptoms. Because it is short term, acute stress doesn't have enough time to do the extensive damage associated with long-term stress, but it can affect a student’s performance in the short term. Stress-related outcomes also vary according to personal and environmental factors, the way one person deals with it will be very different to another hence, why I mentioned the word “subjective” earlier in the blog when describing the diagnosis.
How to handle acute stress
- This may sound extremely cliché but eating well, getting enough sleep and keeping hydrated is the number one golden rule. The pressure of exam preparation and coursework is already increasing your cortisol levels, so you want everything in your power to keep them low.
- Take regular breaks – it is very important to take 15-20 minute breaks to prevent feeling overwhelmed. You should also book an outing that you can look forward to, to reward yourself for your hard work and to recharge your brain.
- Easily one of the most frustrating things about exam season is that it seems to occur just as the weather brightens up. Use this to your advantage and go out for a walk, or a run, or head to the gym or swimming pool. As well as keeping you healthy, exercise is known to boost your mood and can help to make you more productive while revising.
- Meditation is believed to reduce levels, perhaps book a yoga class!
- Recognise what stresses you out, what is your stimulus? Talk to someone who is going through the same experience as you can help get things into perspective.
Ultimately, do not lose sight of the fact that there is life after exams. Although things seems intense now, it won’t last forever.