The science behind stress

stressed woman

Sanaa Naeem | Washtenaw Voice

By Paulette Parker
News Editor

You study for an impending exam. You’re confident you’ll ace it. Once the exam is in front of you, you read the questions and draw a blank. Your heart rate increases, palms begin to sweat. You struggle to realign your jumbled thoughts.

The changes you feel in your brain and body in this moment are due to stress, which we all experience daily, from the minimal to the monumental. How you cope with it can mean the difference between it being a mere hurdle and causing lasting adverse effects.

Cortisol, called the “stress hormone,” is continually released in the brain throughout the day to regulate or modulate many of the changes that occur in the body in response to stress. Negative effects begin to arise with higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol, such as with chronic stress, and can contribute to elevated blood pressure, lowered immune function and coronary artery disease.

Factors contributing to stress are often put into three categories, said Washtenaw Community College psychology instructor Anne Garcia. “Catastrophic events” include fires, floods and car accidents. Incidents such as death, divorce, job loss or moving to a new city are known as “life events.”

“Even if it’s a move that you are looking forward to, physiologically we respond to novel things with a little bit of arousal,” Garcia said. Occurrences such as waiting in long lines, navigating through traffic or worrying about money are known as “daily hassles.”

“That’s not the same as a divorce or a fire, but they happen constantly,” Garcia said. The same events can be processed differently from individual-to-individual.

“How much stress you feel is the function of how you respond to it and can vary depending on your personality,” Garcia said. “Like people who are more anxious versus people who kind of take things in stride.”

WCC general education student Hillery Beavers, 34, of Ypsilanti, balances school and motherhood and says that stress is always there, which leads her to worry.

“It’s kind of like thinking too much and not being able to stop the thinking,” Beavers said. “Instead of doing, I’m thinking.”

Liberal arts student Elizabeth Ehinger, 16, of Ann Arbor, juggles her academic schedule along with participating in team sports. Stress makes it difficult for her to focus on tasks she needs to complete.

“I freak out,” Ehinger said. “And emotionally I’m a wreck.” Coping with stress effectively is vital because stress can leave the body more susceptible to infections due to a lowered immune system, as well as leading to heart attacks and negatively impacting personal relationships.

There are two ways of coping with stress: maladaptive coping and adaptive coping. Maladaptive coping is more destructive than constructive. This includes withdrawing from the situation instead of working through it and participating in harmful behaviors.

“At the moment they’re more pleasant,” Garcia said. “It’s more fun to watch TV than it is to go see a counselor, or it’s nicer to have a few drinks than to go get on your homework, but in the long run it can hurt.”

Drug use and abuse is how a lot of people cope with stress, Garcia said. Ignoring the problem may seem like the easiest thing to do, but in the end it can lead to being more overwhelmed.

“All the maladaptive ways of coping with stress almost invariably lead to more stress,” Garcia said.

The adaptive methods of coping with stress can be broken up into two categories: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping is designed to decrease or eliminate stressors by generating solutions to the problem at hand.

“If money is your issue you might take a semester off, work more hours, save up a little then go back to school,” Garcia said. “It may not solve it completely, but it may make the problem some better.” Beavers experienced frequent stress while trying to get her children to school by 9 a.m. each day.

“I can’t stand being late,” Beavers said. “And when I would rush, I would speed.” One morning Beavers experimented with taking a step back, relaxing and doing the speed limit for her entire route.

“I got there at the same time,” she said. “So I chose not to worry about it.” When it comes to situations that have no easy-fix solution, such as the death of a loved one or loss of a relationship, coping methods are emotion-focused.

“It’s just the time to mourn,” Garcia said. “It’s allowing yourself the opportunity to talk about it, if that’s your way.” Seeking friends or professionals to listen can help frame the situation differently.

“Women do what’s called friend-and-befriend,” Garcia said. “We listen to each other and get ourselves through a lot of things.” Both coping methods can be used concurrently in some situations. Activities such as exercise, meditation or finding a hobby can also be used to manage and minimize stress.

“I’m catholic, so I pray a lot and that helps,” Ehinger said. “I also have a lot of siblings so if I’m stressed I go and spend time with them then come back to the situation.” Beavers finds that meditating in the evening is her most effective way of coping. When stress presents itself suddenly, she finds it helpful to stop and focus on her breathing.

“I focus on just three breaths,” Beavers said. Ultimately she finds it most helpful to remind herself of one thing:

“I just tell myself, ‘It’s okay.’”