Stress: What Is It & How to Combat It

By: Francesca Cocchiarale

Edited by: Zachary Sparks

STRESS. This word has become mainstream in its usage, especially by millennials and gen X populations. Everyone always seems to be stressed, and it has morphed into an emotion that one might feel on a daily basis. Though stress during times of life changes, large exams, or other events might act as a healthy motivator for the body and the mind, being stressed all of the time is not healthy in any way, shape, or form. As a 4th-year college student and a future medical student, I experience stress in many forms, especially when associated with achieving my dreams and accomplishing all of the tasks that are expected of me. Controlling my stress has turned into a lifelong journey, but it has helped me learn how to self-reflect and really know myself. Learning the scientific and emotional background of stress assisted me in my understanding of the feelings that society identifies with “stress”, and this has taken away some of the stigmas behind mental health and stress-related issues. Why do you experience stress? How can you stop feeling “stressed” all of the time, or how can you attempt to control your stress? Here is some background on how our bodies experience stress, and why it occurs in the first place.

What is Stress?

Biologically, stress is defined as “your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat; when you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.” Though many people associate “fight-or-flight” with running from large animals or fighting another individual in an intense situation, stress responses occur during everyday tasks that most people engage in all the time. For example, preparing for a big exam causes large amounts of short-term stress, especially when it comes to taking the actual exam. Surprisingly, stress can be a good thing. It can provide a burst of energy and allow someone, such as a student, to work through the concerns they might have about an exam and push towards fulfilling their goals and aspirations. Small amounts of stress in situations like these can also build up your immune system and provide better heart health outcomes, allowing the body to benefit from a feeling that many people dread.

The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Stress 

Stress can come in a variety of forms, but there are two encompassing categories that help to identify the difference between good or bad stress: acute vs. chronic stress.

Acute stress, or short-term stress, is stress that comes and goes with challenging activities or situations from the past, present, or future, where each episode acts as a short burst of energy. Acute stress comes from emotional situations, large projects or exams, physical ailments, social problems, and a multitude of other experiences or situations that might impose negativity or worries in one’s life. This type of stress is healthy in small doses and is extremely treatable since the cause of this type of stress can usually be pinpointed and controlled. Some generalized symptoms of acute stress include the following: muscular tension in the form of headaches, back pain, jaw pain, or other forms of numbing pain within the body; stomach problems; anxiety; short-term elevations in blood pressure; and many other symptoms that characterize the feeling of short-term stress. More common instances of acute stress are not healthy and can lead to bouts of chronic stress over time, depending on how stress is handled and identified.

Chronic stress arises when the body’s biological stress response (release of chemicals, emotional processing that keeps stress around, the organs’ constant reactions to stress) is activated for longer periods, ranging from months to years.  A deeper and long-standing problem underlies chronic stress, and this can make it harder to target problems and rid of this type of horrible feeling. Specifically, women are more likely to report feeling physical and emotional stress more than men, where almost half of women in the U.S. experience stress-based symptoms frequently.

Experiencing this amount of stress eventually leads to chronic stress when left untreated or unrecognized. One theory that explains this eventual development of chronic stress is the exasperation of the stages of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). When your body is exposed to stress, it goes through three stages to handle the amount of stress being felt: alarm reaction, resistance, and exhaustion. This allows the body to properly recognize stress and respond to it in a safe manner that limits damage to our body’s physical and emotional processes. Being chronically stressed leaves a person in the exhaustion stage, where the body is left with little to no energy to fight the stress responses occurring within the body. Chronic stress, or being left in the “exhaustion stage”, can lead to the following symptoms: depression, sleeping and memory problems, weight gain or weight loss, heart disease, reproductive issues, and many other problems that decrease the body’s ability to function to its best ability. Though it is healthy to experience stress from time to time, chronic stress pushes the body and mind over the edge, and this turns into a bigger problem when it comes to accomplishing tasks and acting on positive behavior.

Some Ways to Combat Stress

When you are experiencing stress of any kind, the first thing to do is question why you feel this way or question why you might be feeling stressed in the first place. Is there an upcoming exam that you are nervous about in school? Are you applying to college or grad schools, and the process of applying and not completely knowing your future is unnerving? Being able to pinpoint why you feel stressed allows you to actively work through feelings and doubts you are experiencing. For example, I just applied to medical school, and I constantly felt uneasy during the day, even when I wasn’t thinking about the application process. After talking through my feelings with my friends and family, I realized that the fact of not knowing where I was going caused a lot of stress and anxiety in my life. After addressing my fears and realizing that all I could do was be positive and hopeful for my future, I was able to calm myself down a little bit and work through my worries.

This is obviously much easier said than done! I had to work on my perspective of changes in my life, and I used different coping mechanisms to work through my doubts and questions about my future. Sometimes, it isn’t as easy as self-assessment and discussion. Here are some other ways to cope with stress and combat the physical and emotional side effects of stress:

  • Exercise. One activity I relied on as an escape from the applications and amount of work I had to complete when applying to medical school was going on walks and focusing on my health. Exercising allows the release of endorphins, a chemical that helps the brain feel good, and it promotes a better mood overall. It is important to find a form of exercise that you truly enjoy since this will be a time where you can put your deadlines and worries on the sideline and just focus on what you are doing at the moment. Exercising has allowed me to challenge my physical limits while also enjoying new music and new ways to think about my life. This gives me time to relax and see my problems from a new perspective.
  • Sleep. One of the most important activities of the 24-hour day is sleep. Our bodies need sleep in order to instill memories and information learned over the course of the day, to rebuild muscles and repair those that have been worked on or hurt, and to keep the body’s biological clock in check. Sleep should be a priority, even when assignments or deadlines might seem more important. If exhaustion is getting in the way of allowing you to feel your best and perform to the best of your ability, taking a power nap might help refresh your mind and feel a little more well rested. It is recommended that napping for around 20 minutes gives the ideal amount of sleep for one to feel rested, while also avoiding feelings of grogginess or tiredness since 20 minutes is not enough time to hit deeper stages of sleep.
  • Write it down or talk it out. For some people, discussing feelings and worries out loud immediately takes some stress away from the situation that is causing it in the first place. For me, this is one method I rely on constantly to relieve some of the stress I am feeling. Discussing my day, as well as diving deep into why I feel a certain way, allows me to evaluate my stress levels in a healthy and conducive environment. Talking to friends or family also allows me to see a different perspective or attitude applied to my situation, which can change my outlook in positive ways. Being able to discuss problems or stress you are feeling with those you trust will lead to better outlooks, positive energy, and gratitude for those that are there for you. If you don’t feel ready to discuss it just yet, writing it down, while also pairing a point about stress with a point you are grateful for in your life, might allow you to reflect upon positive aspects of your life.
  • Avoid procrastination. Once again, this is WAY easier said than done, but leaving assignments or something of pressing matter to the last second can cause ample amount of stress that could have been avoided if addressed earlier. One way I avoid procrastination is to start off the beginning of my week by looking at all the assignments or tests I have for the week and prioritizing each task I need to complete. This way, I am focusing my energy on more important and time-pressing assignments at the beginning of the week, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work that needs to be done for the week and leaving it all to the last second.
  • Learn to say no or re-evaluate your current activities. Do you have a tendency to say yes to everyone that asks for a favor? LEARN TO SAY NO. I used to be a person that would always want to allow people to rely on me for multiple reasons. I learned that saying yes to everyone’s request caused large amounts of stress in my life since I didn’t have time to focus on myself in the end. You can still be a reliable and trustworthy friend while also saying no when a task or request might be too much for you at the time. Another important aspect of your life that might be causing stress is the number of activities you are involved in when it comes to academics, organizations or clubs at school or other activities. When I was a freshman in college, I joined a bunch of organizations because I thought a lot of them would look good on my resume, or I just thought all of them would be super fun. I ended up joining too many clubs and dedicating myself to too many tasks. Look at your workload and ask yourself if all of the activities you are doing are enjoyable and time commitment friendly. You might find that some activities are on your schedule for the wrong reasons.

Stress is not an enjoyable feeling, but it is a part of life and the experiences that come along with it. Everyone experiences different types of stress, and you are not alone when it comes to approaching obstacles or problems in your life and feeling large amounts of uncertainty and stress. If stress does become too much, and coping mechanisms recommended by trusted sources are not assisting you in feeling better, explore your options for seeking out professional expertise. Talking to your primary care doctor about your symptoms associated with stress might lead to the need for more direct help, such as therapy where you can assess your stress in a serious matter. No matter what, addressing the fact that you are stressed is the first step in the process of feeling better about yourself!

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