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Science

The Science of Stress

Artwork By Lily Greenwood

 

 

Week one is an excellent time to tell yourself this semester will be different – less rushed assignment submissions, no 37 lectures to watch during SWOTVAC, and definitely less stress overall. Yes, you tell yourself, I can manage my time better, so that for once, I rule university and it does not rule me. The fact of the matter is, whether you keep your admirable new-semester resolutions or not, you will be stressed at some point in the next 12 weeks. Every student has had to accept that stress is an inevitable part of university – just like HECS debt or spending too much on coffee and food. However, far from being an unfortunate byproduct of meeting the demands of semester, stress will take its toll on our wellbeing after semester and well after leaving university.

On an individual level, it is no secret stress can make us more prone to both physical and psychological ailments such as neck pain, headaches, anxiety and depression. On a population level, the rising rates of stress-induced anxiety and depression among all ages is resulting in increased levels of suicide, with suicide becoming the leading cause of death for Australians from 15-44. As such, The World Health Organisation has dubbed stress the “health epidemic of the 21st century”. All of this underlies a widespread problem that will send tidal waves through the healthcare system for generations.

Fortunately, there are ways we can prevent stress from staying the new normal. Apart from addressing this issue through population healthcare, it is important to recognise the power we have as individuals. As a particularly stressed-out bunch, we university students owe it to ourselves to hone our stress management skills and invest in greater long-term physical and mental health. By understanding the biology of stress, becoming self-aware of our stressors and actively diffusing stress, we are putting ourselves in better stead to deal with the next 12 weeks, and investing in greater long term physical and mental health.

 

The science behind stress

Regardless whether there are actual physical dangers present or if there are invisible stressors – an assignment lurking around the corner – our brains will respond to stressful stimuli by triggering a cascade of complex biological responses. This usually involves the activation of metabolic and physiological pathways (hormonal and neuronal responses) which act on a variety of tissues and organs. The outcomes may differ depending on the severity and duration of the stressors, but they ultimately help your body to work through the stressful period. However, when these pathways are activated for extended periods, they can often have a negative impact on overall health.

A common stress response is known as the “fight or flight” response. It is the involuntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which will prepare the body for confrontation by diverting energy towards the most essential processes. After the brain has received a message of imminent threat, certain nerves are triggered and the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are secreted into the bloodstream. You might be familiar with the “adrenaline rush” feeling you have before a stressful event. Adrenaline slows digestion while increasing heart rate, blood sugar levels and blood flow to vital organs (heart, brain and muscles) as their energy demands increase to cope with stressors. Similarly, cortisol, which is usually secreted along with your circadian rhythm to regulate vital metabolic functions, alters metabolism so that more fats, glucose and proteins are broken down for energy. These archaic responses, common among all mammals, have been essential to the survival of many species, especially when escaping predators or protecting territory. But in a modern human context, before giving a dreaded oral presentation,, it is slightly less useful. In this case, it can, rather unhelpfully, cause shakiness, heart palpitations and a dry mouth.

Whilst short-term activation of these mechanisms will help you focus on the task at hand and facilitate a performance boost, long-term activation can be harmful to many aspects of mental and physical health. In the immediate future, you will experience a weakened immune response, and increased muscle tension and soreness. While later in life, the heightened blood cortisol and adrenaline levels result in elevated blood pressure and heart rate; a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases. Most importantly, however, chronic stress can rewire the neural circuitry of the brain, predisposing you to anxiety, depression and mood disorders.

But relax! There is a whole long list of things you can do to mitigate or prevent the onset of chronic stress during semester. By taking regular breaks and engaging in these relaxing activities, you can help lower cortisol and adrenaline levels, essentially giving your body and your brain a deserving break to return to a calmer physiological state.  

 

Less stress, more chill

Implementing stress reduction is more effective once you are self-aware of when and why you’re stressed, and the impact it is having on you physically and mentally. It is not so hard to recognise stress when you are hunched over a desk at 1AM, still trying to finish an assignment. And figuring out why you are stressed is easy too – it is probably uni, more specifically that ridiculous 3000 word assignment your lecturers have not explained properly. Or maybe it has something to do with friends, family or work. But it might be harder to identify exactly how stress is affecting your body, mood and mind. We are often only subconsciously aware of these effects, and a concerted effort needs to be made to bring the physical manifestations of stress to the forefront of our consciousness.

But once you have recognised all these things, you can do something about it! Give yourself the respect and time you deserve to just chill.

 

Proven ways to de-stress

Everyone releases stress differently. Whether it is getting active, starting a nice, long Netflix binge or hanging out with mates, it is important to try a few options and find out what works for you. What makes you go from stressed to chill? In case you do not have something in mind already, here are a few (taken from the masses of scientific literature) that might be a good starting point:

  • Mindfulness meditation. This craze is here to stay, and with good reason. It might sound a bit…  boring? Like sleeping but not actually sleeping? What am I actually supposed to do when I meditate? But everyone kind of starts out like that. After you get the hang of it, mindfulness really works – it is relaxing, and importantly it brings your attention to the physical effects of stress on your body. Plus, there is lots of evidence in support of it. You can try a few free apps which run through guided mindfulness meditations – Smiling Mind and Headspace are both excellent user friendly options. Just try it out – persevere for 10 minutes each day for a few days. By the end of it, if this just is not for you, try something else.
  • Exercise. Whether it is high action sports to blow off steam or something more quiet like yoga, both forms of exercise are scientifically proven to lower stress levels by setting your body back to a calmer resting state.  
  • Talking and laughing with mates. You don’t need a scientist to tell you that spending time with friends and family, and cracking up ‘til you cannot breathe correlates to happiness and reduced stress – but science does concur.  
  • Food. Week 11 may have you mindlessly stuffing your face while working and worrying; but if you just take 15 minutes to sit, eat and enjoy your delicious toasted sandwich, this can go a long way to alleviate stress.  

 

How to let Monash de-stress you (since they are probably the cause of your stress):

There are many facilities and options available on campus for students’ well-deserved stress relief needs. Do you feel like…

    • Just walking around? The good news is we have a whole campus for that, and a few parts of it (minus construction areas) are actually quite picturesque. Take a 10-minute stroll to soak up all the greenery and architecture Clayton has to offer, or better yet, go exploring to the parts of campus you never dared to venture into before. The change of scenery is sure to give your mind a nice break.   
    • Taking a nap? Sadly, while there are not dedicated napping areas complete with masses of pillows, there are select spots that provide enough peace and cosiness for a bit of shut-eye. Although not accessible to all, the Women’s Room has a couple of beds on offer, and the Disability Support Services can provide those in need with access to beds (provided you have a suitable diagnosis). For everyone else, the easiest places seem to be John Medley Library and the comfy couches of Wholefoods, but little quiet spaces can also be found in the many libraries and small unoccupied study spaces around campus.
    • Patting a dog or two that will sure be happy to see you? As you might have heard, Clayton Campus has had regular visits from Boof and his L-plater sister, and sometimes even a litter of their canine friends. It is truly a wonderful experience, so definitely keep an eye out, especially at the Law Library.  

 

  • Talking to someone who will actually listen? As much as you might not want to see a counsellor, it can help when friends and family are too stressed out to talk, or when you just do not know who to turn to. Whether it is serious anxiety or a general deflated feeling, talking to someone is likely to alleviate some of your worries. Monash counselling services are free, confidential and ultimately there for your use to help deal with the tougher parts of your university journey. You can book an appointment online or call the convenient 24/7 number for Monash Counselling 1300 STUDENT (1300 788 336).

 

 

Hopefully, this semester will bring you less stress and more enjoyment. But even if it does not, hopefully it will be a start towards reclaiming your wellbeing from all kinds of stress, so you can focus on chilling and having fun.

 

Sasha Hall

The author Sasha Hall

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