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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


The science of stress

Tom Price
Electrical Engineering major Jacqueline Kientzler falls asleep at her computer on Sunday, May 1.

Stress is a common feeling in all of our lives, and it’s brought about by feelings of anxiety, urgency and concern. Stress begins with the diagnosis of an issue, which then kicks off stress responses in the body, leading us to a state of panic and confusion. To counter this, humans have developed ways to calm down and release stress.

“Freshmen coming in have to make new friends and learn to manage their time differently,” said David Salafsky, director of Health Promotion and Preventive Services at Campus Health. ”Some people can manage these problems intermittently, and on the other hand, some people are coming into college already dealing with these issues, but most of us are going to deal with this at some point or another.”

Stress begins when we identify a problem potentially harmful to us in some way or another. This kicks off a release of epinephrine in the brain. Epinephrine, better known as adrenaline, makes us jittery and panicked. This is because epinephrine disrupts normal processing in the pre-frontal cortex, an area in the brain in charge of long-term planning and impulse control.

“The initial release of epinephrine stamps memory in, so you remember very clearly but shortly thereafter things start to get fuzzy,” said W. Jake Jacobs, psychology professor and director of the Anxiety Research group at UA. “This is so we can remember important, life threatening issues later in our life.”

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The release of epinephrine is just the first phase in the body’s response to stress. The second stage is characterized by the release of cortisol from certain glands in the body into the blood stream. Cortisol is a hormone in charge of controlling blood-sugar levels along with regulating metabolism. This stage takes a few minutes to occur, due to the time it takes for it to flow through our blood stream. Eventually it reaches the brain’s hippocampus, furthering a sense of confusion and fear. 

“The hippocampus places us in space and time,” Jacobs said. “This means that now both of those things are fairly well disrupted, and you’re not functioning in a high cognitive level, you’re functioning more toward a primitive level.”

The problem is, cortisol takes time to be cleared from the blood stream, meaning even after the initial stress has left, you’ll still feel panicked. 

There is a third phase of stress, where the epinephrine and cortisol responses work in tandem, but this is generally rare, as most stress responses halt at the second phase. 

“If you enter that third phase, it’s a pretty interesting psychological state,” Jacobs said. 

As epinephrine begins to exhaust itself, the body and mind become fatigued.

Certain health issues come with stress as well. There are no specific issues that come with long-term chronic stress, but it can increase your susceptibility to disease. 

“The immune system becomes somewhat less efficient in the face of all this,” Jacobs said. 

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The problem is, there is no one way to release stress. We actually know  very little on why certain methods calm us down, just how they work. 

 ”Some people claim they act as distractions,” Jacobs said.  ”What happens is you no longer perceive it as a source of stress anymore, and the stress cascade damps down.”

This is only a theory, however. 

We’re stressed because we recognize something to stress us out, and that takes psychological processing and acknowledgement, which leads to the aforementioned stress phases.

Controlling your breathing patterns is one powerful tool to release stress. Sleep is also a very important component in mental health. 

“People get into this vicious cycle where they’re stressed, so they’re not sleeping, so they’re not recharging,”  Salafsky said.  

Six to eight hours of sleep is essential.

So if you need to de-stress yourself, find something you like to do to distract your mind. Don’t focus on the doom and gloom of that one question on a calculus test you didn’t figure out until after the exam ended. Do something else: talk to friends, take a nap, go for a walk, listen to music, browse dank memes. The same goes for if you’ve got a lot of work on your plate, take a break every now and then to calm down.

Follow William Rockwell on Twitter.

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