All the possibilities that our grandparents only dreamed of – we have them. Indeed, we are constantly looking for new adventures, challenges, and journeys to the far ends of the world. We ‘like’ to engage in extra-curricular activities, do internships in our summer breaks, have (several) part-time jobs – all this next to a full-time study load, of course. I know this pressure from my own experience, and I know we sometimes forget that at times it is okay – or even necessary – to say ‘no’. The result: many students are stressed and exhausted. But what does that actually mean, ‘being stressed’, and what can we do about it? To get a clearer picture, I talked to psychologist Tom Smeets, an expert on learning, memory, and the effects of stress.
What is stress? “Psychologically speaking, it is the feeling you get when a task or situation exceeds your abilities”, explains Smeets. And it does not matter whether that is really the case – you only need to feel overwhelmed in order for our body to switch to an alert state. “Biologically, stress entails two responses: a fast one – think of the release of adrenalin and noradrenalin – and a slow one – chiefly the release of cortisol. These hormones adapt our body to a stressful situation”. Adapt? “Yes, the fact that we get stressed in a potentially dangerous situation is very important and beneficial”. The immediate signal sent by the fast response is either ‘fight or flight’.
Adrenalin enters circulation within a few seconds. It accelerates heart rate, breathing frequency and increases blood pressure – it prepares the body for the danger it is confronted with. Cortisol, released from the same (adrenal) glands a few minutes later, adds to that response in mobilizing additional energy, that is, increasing the glucose production in our body.
Together, noradrenalin and cortisol also have an effect on the amygdala and hippocampus, important parts of the fear and memory systems of our brain. Their message is, ‘remember how it smells, looks, and sounds like – we should avoid this situation in the future’. While this enhances memory-formation processes, especially when the incoming information is arousing, it (temporarily) decreases the capacity for remembering. What you should take from this: it is not helpful to be stressed right before an exam. But while you are studying, being a little stressed can actually be beneficial because it stimulates the formation of new memories.
And what does that mean for our health; is it dangerous to be stressed all the time? “If that were the case, I would be dead by now”, Smeets smiles. According to him, before stress can damage our body, it must be very severe and chronic. “A single burst of cortisol cannot do any damage to the brain, thanks to a negative feedback system that prevents the stress response from harming your body. The studies that evoked the impression that stress causes brain damage are animal studies that involved highly intense and prolonged stress often during pregnancy or infancy.
Another aspect of stress is that the body relies on habits and routines instead of complicated goal-directed behavior. “I am sure you know how hard it is to keep yourself from snacking when you are studying for exams, or – as a former smoker – not to smoke when you got into a stressful situation. It’s a way to keep the system (you) running smoothly, even under stressful conditions.”
This is all nice and fine – but I know from my own experience that being stressed is very distracting. I get nervous and block myself because I realize that I have too many things to do at the same time. How can I avoid these vicious cycles? “I always recommend my students to relax their shoulders, breath slowly, and remember the benefits of this actually quite adaptive response. Such coping strategies can reduce the distracting physical symptoms of stress (like feeling your heart racing) and thereby allow you to focus on the task. Other than that: habituation (training). Get used to the situation, and learn to trust yourself and to rely on your abilities.”