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Don’t Mess with Stress

Arriving late to an appointment, spilling soda or coffee on your shirt, or forgetting where you placed your keys are among the daily occurrences that create short-term stress in our lives. As annoying and frustrating as these scenarios can be, they do not even remotely compare to the effects of long-term stress, such as a family member’s illness, protracted job stress, or the ending of a significant relationship.

Stress reaches an even higher zenith when your life or integrity is at risk. Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Amy Bacon, a clinical psychologist, said that people cope differently when confronted with stressful situations. “Factors such as how you perceive your environment and anticipate the future play key roles in how you problem-solve to enact change,” she said.

One such intense situation occurred on campus in 1963: Bradley Hall was engulfed in flames and later wrapped in ice on a freezing, icicle-laced evening in January. Despite the catastrophic damage to Bradley’s main academic building, classes reopened one week later. How was this possible? “When unexpected situations of great stress arise, people can either stew on what to do next and say ‘woe is me’ or they can hit the ground running and draw a solution,” Bacon noted. 

“People with positive outlooks who stay focused on what they can change often see a benefit from a stressful situation and learn and grow through the process,” Bacon said. “Rather than try to fight or suppress stress, they realize that stress is coming along for the ride, and they need to keep moving forward in life with what they value.”

It is widely known that high levels of stress can lead to cardiovascular problems, depression, obesity, ulcers, headaches and more. Even worse, Bacon explained, acute stress can ignite inflammation and weaken the immune system, opening the door to other serious illnesses.

“When the body responds to a stress and releases the hormone cortisol, there is less energy to allocate to immune response,” Bacon said. “The hormone cortisol is released by the HPA or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and signals the body to allocate its energy toward responding to the stressor and away from less pressing issues such as immune response. While this process is adaptive in the short term, problems arise when the stressor is long lasting.”

Bacon cited an example of a life situation that can deplete the immune system: A single parent who is overworked, depressed, and lonely, and is overwhelmed and exhausted by the hustle and bustle of the holidays. “A person in this situation may be more likely than a co-worker who is less stressed to catch a winter cold, even if they both were exposed to the virus.” 

Everyone responds to stress differently, so there is a genetic factor. “How parents and grandparents respond to stress plays a part in how the offspring react as they grow older,” Bacon said. “Early stresses, including malnutrition, childhood trauma, and neglect in childhood also have a dramatic effect on stress response and reactivity as people age.”

Despite the negative ramifications of stress, it is not categorically bad. Bacon cited the Yerkes-Dodson law, which is an inverted U () where performance under high stress or no subjective stress is generally poor, while having a moderate, functional level of stress results in elevated performance. She said the takeaway is that a little bit of subjective stress is good and adaptive.

We learn from our doctors that we should eat right, exercise, get plenty of sleep, and maintain a positive support system. The challenge is that it takes time and energy to start a proactive regime of change. When stressed, it is difficult to realize that you can find any time at all to shift your course. “In addition to traditional approaches of managing stress, emerging techniques include acceptance-based therapies that rely on Eastern philosophies such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and other forms of relaxation training,” Bacon said.   

— Susan Andrews
Photography by Duane Zehr