A deadline at work. Arguing with you significant other. A midterm exam tomorrow that’s worth a quarter of your final grade. Not being able to watch Tom Brady win a fifth Super Bowl ring. What do all of the above situations have in common? They’re extremely stressful (Tom needs to cement his greatest QB of all-time status)!
We collectively as an American society spend a lot of time in stressful states. But do we really know what’s really going on in our bodies when we’re so frustrated we could punch a wall? This is something that is extremely important and the topic of one of the most informative books I’ve read to date, Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky. Within this article I will explain how stress comes about, how it affects our immune system, memory, and sleep cycle and how to better manage our stress.
How does Stress Work?
In the body we have two divisions of the autonomic nervous system; the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is what keeps us calm, relaxed, and not wanting to run into a wall. Think of meditation or sitting in sunny Cancun with a Corona next to you in the sand (remember: we all willingly live in Massachusetts in the winter, I don’t know why but we do). Conversely, the sympathetic nervous is when stress comes into play. I’m sure all of you have heard of adrenaline (AKA epinephrine) and the “flight or fight response”. When our bodies become sympathetic epinephrine is release, and the brain sends a message to the adrenal gland to release hormones that are called glucocorticoids. Glucocorticoids can be a huge detriment to our body when we are stressed. Before I get into how stress affects our bodies I do want to point out one thing. It must be understood that all stress isn’t negative or bad. Stress can also result from positive and good feelings, but the feelings must be strong. A phenomenal example of this is when the Patriots win Super Bowls. Although you are only sitting on your couch staring at your TV watching Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick hoist the Lombardi trophy, you are so excited (or maybe it’s just me) that you have now entered a sympathetic state and release adrenaline and glucocorticoids. Loving your job but working sixty hours a week is another prime example.
Now that we’ve covered a little bit about how stress responses work in the body, lets talk about how these responses affect our lives.
Stress & the Immune System
The immune systems primary function is to protect the body from foreign agents such as viruses and bacteria. Being in a state of fight or flight can really tax and overexert the body. When this happens the immune system becomes suppressed or shuts off. This warrants the brain to excrete epinephrine and glucocorticoids leaving the body unable to fight against infection. This is why you always end up getting sick before the final exam or the last week of meeting a big deadline. When the immune system is continually suppressed and the stress response is prolonged, chronic diseases could possibly occur due to the inability of the body to form lymphocytes.
Stress and Memory
Memory is the process in which information is encoded, stored and retrieved. In terms of stress and memory, we must think of the relationship in terms of an inverted U. What I mean by this (and you can refer to the graph below) is that having a lot of stress or no stress at all can hinder memory, whereas having a mild amount of stress can actually enhance memory. This is why you’re so good Jeopardy right? But as stress persists and become more chronic memory starts to decline. Think of how you used to stay up all night in college studying for an exam and then next day you get there and can’t remember much of anything. This due to lack of sleep leading to the inability of brain to consolidate what you just learned. This stress can also make things we already know tough to remember causing the need for more “association cues” (cues that help us put one and one together) to retrieve information
Inverted U. The middle is optimal amount of stress to have the sharpest memory. When we have no stress at all are too much to handle, memory becomes hindered.
Who doesn’t like Dory from Finding Nemo?
Stress and Sleep
In sleep there are five stages. Stages one and two are quite shallow and you can be easily woken. Stages three and four are slow wave sleep or deep sleep. Finally there is REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage in which breathing and heart rate increase as you dream. Sleeping throughout the night follows a cyclical pattern of going through each phase of sleep (below diagram). As we grow older it is harder for us to reach stages three and four or deep sleep. Go without sleep for a while and you will become sleep deprived. Now when you try to fall asleep the parasympathetic state that typically calms your down is inhibited as stress levels increase (due to increase in glucocorticoids). Tying this back to the above topic, being unable to sleep can hamper our explicit memory (memory to recall information). For people that continually have trouble falling asleep you may have insomnia, in which seventy-five percent of cases are due to elongated stress-responses.
Now that we understand a little bit about how stress affects our lives, let’s take about ways to manage stress.
How to Manage Stress
Enhances mood and lowers stress responses (can last up to a day)
Find exercise you like- it’s important that exercise is something you voluntarily do.
In terms of stress, aerobic exercise (walking, running, biking) can beneficial than anaerobic exercise (weightlifting).
Be consistent- the only way to ever gain results is to never stray from the path of your goals.
Yes you do have time for it!
There are one hundred and sixty-eight hours a week and all you need to do is start with thirty-five minutes of meditation a week. You can absolutely afford to spend a half-hour on reducing stress. Start by simply focusing on deep belly breathing (in through the nose out through the moth) for five minutes, then slowly work your way up to twenty minutes.
Get social support
Having people to rely on and talk to especially during stressful periods of our lives drastically improves our health
It’s important to take time away from work to build up “social capital”
Don’t just get, give social support
Someone out there really needs you!
So now you about stress, how it affects our bodies and different aspects of our lives, and how to manage it. I hope this helps you reach a stress-reduced lifestyle.
Blog post by: Brandon Drinan
Sapolsky, Robert, M. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Times. 2004. Print.What