As the days get shorter and the assignments begin piling up it is not hard to tell that that infamous time of the year is upon us – midterm season! Often, when most of us, myself included, think about the weeks between mid-October and mid-November the number one thing that comes to mind is STRESS.
As university students stress has become a bit of a buzz word and is in most everyone’s daily vocabulary. This juggling act of commitments and responsibilities that we all engage in can be quite overwhelming especially at times of year such as this one when it can feel as though everything is coming to a head all at once.
What really is stress? Stress is our bodies physiological response to a perceived threat, most commonly this is associate with the “fight-or-flight response”, a battle between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the “fight” portion of this response, our breathing and heart rate increases, digestion is slowed, adrenaline increases, and all of the body’s energy is put towards its response to this perceived threat. In reality, this “threat” could be an in-class presentation or exam, a disagreement with a loved one, or even the overwhelming thought of all of the things on our to-do list that seem incompletable. The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand, acts in opposition, calming the body back to its resting state. It slows breathing and heart rate, decreases blood pressure, dilates the pupils but most noticeably – allows us to feel relaxed. These two branches of the nervous systems act in conjunction to form the stress response cycle.
Holding on to stress. Like all cycles they run continuously, one step must be completed before the following may begin and the stress response cycle is no different! Since this cycle was established long ago, when humans frequently faced life-threatening dangers, the result was often quite literally fighting or running away. Our bodies acknowledge that the cycle has been completed through recognizing this physical activity, meaning it expects us to be physically active following a period of stress. Since most of the challenges us university students face involve abstract things such as deadlines and societal responsibilities, it is very uncommon for our response to be literally running away from our problems. This means that our stress is being suppressed within our bodies and the cycle is left incomplete, causing us to carry it within us. This internalized stress can manifest in many ways such as in headaches, stomach discomfort, exhaustion, and muscle aches among many other things.
Completing the cycle. Luckily there are many strategies that we can use to complete the stress response cycle and release this unwanted stress from our bodies. Some of the easiest include standing us and jumping around your room, going for a brisk walk outdoors, and the most effective being engaging in moderate-strenuous physical activity for at least 15 minutes. In doing these things your nervous system is receiving the physical cues that it is waiting for to notify it that he perceived danger has passed and that the parasympathetic nervous system can kick in to bring us back to our calmer and more desirable baseline.
Making stress your friend. Though we often this of stress as a barrier in the way of productivity and even happiness, it has not evolved in the way it has accidentally. This adrenaline rush before a big presentation, if harnessed and embraced, allows us to be more focused and can even enhance our performance. How does this work you may ask? It sends more oxygen to our brains, triggers the release of energizing hormones, both of which are extremely helpful when you need to be alert and to concentrate on a particular task. Research has shown that students to consider stress to be a performance-enhancing phenomenon actually perform better on evaluations. Our mindsets are so powerful that this simple action of reframing how we think of stress can decrease our likelihood to procrastinate and avoid daunting tasks because, we see our stress surrounding them as a tool to help us tackle them.
I hope that this midterm season we can all practice not only completing our inevitable stress response cycles through physical activity but, can also begin the journey to making stress our friends.
Good luck Ravens!
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