Stress and college seem to go hand-in-hand. But how exactly does stress work, and how can we control it? Lilly and Peter explore this important topic with the help of Assistant Professor of Psychology Shu-Wen Wang, CAPS Psychological Counselor Adam Edmunds, and Prana Das Yoga’s Derek Hopkins. This episode features the track “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie (1982).
Lilly Alonzo: Stress. It’s essential to life, but it detracts from life in many ways. How does stress work? How can you reduce it?
Peter Granville: Today, we’ll talk about how good stress becomes bad stress, why you should talk to yourself like a friend, and even what we can learn about stress from gazelles.
LA: My name is Lilly.
PG: And I’m Peter. Welcome to the Compass.
PG: Stress is a natural part of the body’s self-regulation. It’s the body’s response to something prompting action.
LA: Notice that this definition didn’t characterize stress as all bad. In fact, if it weren’t for stress, our ancestors would have been eaten by bears.
PG: Right – stress can be good. If you’re walking in the woods and you suddenly see a bear fifty feet away, the stress you feel is helpful and appropriate: it prompts you to do the right thing, which is to briskly get out of there.
LA: So stress wants to be your friend. But stress can sometimes be a bad friend. You may have stress when you don’t need it –
PG: We’ve all gotten a test back and suddenly gone into panic mode. But a bed test is not the same as a bear.
LA: Stress is complex, but if we understand it, maybe we won’t get swept away by it.
PG: We spoke with someone who knows many of the ins and outs of stress.
Shu-Wen Wang: My name is Shu-Wen Wang. I’m an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Haverford.
PG: Professor Wang focuses on stress in her research and teaches a course called “Stress and Coping.”
LA: How exactly does stress arise in the body?
SWW: The main idea is that the sympathetic nervous system ramps up and mobilizes energy. It activates all these different activities. And so, the heart rate accelerates in order to bring more nutrients to the rest of the body to prepare itself to fight or flight. The core muscle groups in the major limbs get activated to fight or to flee. You start breathing in a different way. And so on and so forth. All of these things happen in order to prepare the body to do what it can to survive. The end result is the flooding of adrenaline or epinephrine or norepinephrine into the the body.
LA: To summarize, you have one stress system that acts quickly to handle fight or flight response.
PG: I have a quick question. Is the movie “Snakes on a Plane” with Samuel L. Jackson both fight and flight?
LA: (laughs) Alright, back to Professor Wang.
SWW: The other system the system that I actually study a bit more in my own research is a slower hormonal system. It’s referred to as the HPA axis, or the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. The HPA releases glucocorticoids into the body and, in particular for humans, it’s cortisol. So you’ve probably heard of cortisol as one of the main stress hormones in humans, and that’s exactly what it is. With the HPA axis, the thing with that is that it takes a little bit longer time to mount a response. Basically, you’ll have a stressor and then maybe about 20-25 minutes later there’s a flood of responses that lead to a spike in cortisol. And so it’s slower, and it’s really the system that helps to sustain a stress response. It’s kind of more about the long-term adaptation of the body to what’s going on. Researchers who have studied this have found that cortisol dysregulation is linked with all kinds of maladaptive health outcomes. It’s been linked with everything from faster cancer progression to diabetes and cardiovascular disease and suppressed immune function and all kinds of mental health disorders, so, PTSD, depression, so on and so forth. So the body’s stress response systems are really these two systems. You have a fast one, and then you have the slower one that’s really more implicated in what people think of as stress-related disease.
PG: Professor Wang also highlights that we need to be a little dubious of the stress we feel. It’s a system that was not designed for the world we live in.
SWW: The last thing I’ll say about this is that our stress-response systems were really developed and evolved over time in order to keep up safe from physical emergencies: from a predator attacking, or some kind of disaster happening, and you needing to move yourself to safety. But the interesting thing is that for most modern humans, we’re not really faced that those kinds of life or death situations on a daily basis – those of us who are fortunate enough not to be in those situations. And yet our stress response systems haven’t changed. It’s still the same stress response systems that kept us safe when we were most in danger of predators attacking us. And so what happens then is that if you had a really bad first date with someone and you start ruminating about that, that’s setting off the same stress response systems. You are worried about an upcoming exam, and you’re activating those same sets of stress response systems.
PG: It is so important to know whether what we’re feeling is “good stress” or “bad stress.” Professor Wang had some tips for knowing which is which.
LA: We’ve been talking on this episode about how someone’s stress can actually improve their performance, but only up to a certain point. What would be a sign that good stress has become bad stress?
SWW: Sure, and I think that’s a great question because sometimes people think of stress as always being a negative thing, and it’s not. Those of us who study stressors and coping make this distinction between stressors that may be considered very positive in a qualitative way. Let’s say you get a promotion at work. That’s a fantastic thing, but it’s also going to be a stressor, because now you’ve acquired new responsibilities and now there’s other things that go along with it. Or someone who starts a new relationships, or if you get married. So things that can be qualitatively positive are also stressors. Just like things that may be qualitatively negative are stressors as well. So there is this long-standing theory in healthy psychology called the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which essentially this inverted U-curve about how stress motivates performance. So at one point you reach this peak at which stress can really motivate performance and help you perform better, and then at point it decreases and performance suffers from that. And so what I would generally say is that when a task or a challenge of some kind starts to feel like a threat, as opposed to a challenge, there you’ve really crossed an important distinction. So something that’s a challenge is something that makes you feel like “Wow, this is really pushing me at the boundary of my competence. I’m going to have to acquire some new skills, or I’m going to have to put more energy or more time or dedication into this. And that can be great. That means that now you’re being pushed to try new things, and you’re trying to better your abilities in some way. You feel like there are resources you can reach out to that can help you perform better. That’s a challenge. A threat is when you start to see something as insurmountable. So now, this thing has gotten the better of you and you may not perceive that there are resources for you to access for help. And so I would say that’s kind of when stress changes in a way that can really impact your performance or your ability, when it becomes that bad stress that you’re asking about. So, when something seems insurmountable, if it’s really debilitating or discouraging, I think that’s when someone might want to really think about accessing some help. If you’re struggling in a course, that means you start going to the help center – the Chem Question Center, or whatever resources are for your department. Or you start going to the OAR, or you start going to CAPS, or you start seeing your professors in their office hours, or you go to your peer advisors, or so on and so forth. Those are real signals that you need to more actively get some resources for that.
PG: This episode is brought to you by meditation. I recommend this to students all the time in the OAR. Ten minutes sitting down, breathing deeply, trying to just focus on your breath: it’s probably the most efficient way to destress when you’re feeling overwhelmed. You can also use a guided meditation through an app, like Headspace for instance. When you’re stressed, I know, you want to binge-watch Netflix for two hours, but meditation only takes ten minutes and does the job just as well. Try it out today.
PG: We turn now to stress reduction. But before we do, we should offer an important caveat. The following advice may be helpful, but the best thing to do to is to get a personalized consultation with a member of CAPS. If your stress consistently feels overwhelming, you should seek out professional advice.
LA: That’s right. Now, one way to reduce stress is to focus on the past two topics we’ve discussed: sleep and nutrition. Regular exercise, which we discussed in Episode 3 last season, also helps reduce stress.
PG: We sat down to talk about stress with one of the amazing counselors at CAPS.
Adam Edmunds: I’m Adam Edmunds. I am a psychological counselor at Counseling and Psychological Services, CAPS, the counseling center here at Haverford. I’m also the outreach coordinator.
LA: Adam says that one good protection against stress is to have a schedule enshrining good sleep, food, and exercise into your day.
AE: It’s helpful to have a routine. Life will always come at you, so it’s good that you set your way of how you handle life, and the best ways that you set up structure. So having a consistent time that you go to bed or wake up, where even if you don’t want to you do it. Take coffee, take a nap, but you get up at the same time and you go to bed at the same time. And that’s including the weekends, as much as that’s an adjustment, but that’s important. Eating helps you. Also, sleep is necessary for retention of information. Research has found that if you’re learning something for two hours, and then you took a nap, or did something else for two hours, you remember more following the nap than if you did something else. So sleep actually helps with making sure you’re learning what you’re learning. Eating helps you get the energy that you need so that you can keep learning. So, whether that’s having a granola bar, having an actual meals, but having meals structured. You can set it to your phone, since it’s always around, set it to a clock, whatever, but set that. Exercise helps you alleviate and discharge some of the energy that you may be containing. It helps you so that you’re not feeling so tense, so your muscles are a little bit more relaxed. It can help you with sleeping, because your body is so exhausted. It helps you with your cardiovascular system, helps with blood pressure. When I work with people, students, professionals, I say you have to have a routine, you have to have something to help discharge, and with exercise, it can be a hobby, but it must have some movement, something that you can enjoy.
PG: This routine Adam mentions is also a tool for monitoring your stress and knowing when to take a self care day.
AE: Changes in typical routine of your best self, of your usual self, should tell you that things are amiss. And when they are, take a day off. That day off will help you to be able to be more present for all these other days. But if you keep pushing yourself, eventually what’s going to happen is – I hope it doesn’t – but what tends to happen is that people just collapse. They have a breakdown where they just can’t go anymore. And that’s less predictable than saying “I just need to take today off and reset.”
LA: Professor Wang also had suggestions for managing stress.
PG: She says that, when you temper your reactions to stressful events, you gain control over the stress you feel.
SWW: The key thing I like to tell folks is – whether or not you have a diagnosable mental health condition, these are just really good habits for everyone throughout yourself – is to be really aware of the kinds of thoughts that you’re having. I think that oftentimes each one of us walk around in our daily lives and we aren’t very aware necessarily of the thoughts that are popping up. So we all have these cognitions that come up and they’re just thoughts – the idea, though, is that if you’re buying into them, if you’re believing them, or if you are acting as if they are 100% truth, then you might really be getting yourself into some trouble. For example, often times we might be telling ourselves that something that just happened to us is a disaster, that that’s a horrible thing. And somethings for sure are, right. Certainly there are stressors that happen in life and people have no control over them. And certainly there are some folks who are really burdened disproportionately with certain kinds of stressors and adversity. That’s for sure true. But for example, it could be that you perceived some social slight and you’re not sure about it and now it becomes this “Oh god now they hate me, and what’s going to happen to the rest of my social relationships, and what am I going to do at this next party, I show up and let’s say that person’s there -” That can really spiral. And it can become something catastrophic. Psychologists call some kinds of patterns of thinking “cognitive distortions.” That’s essentially because they’re distorting the absolute truth of what happened. One common thing that happens is that people start catastrophizing. Everything becomes “Oh my god, what am I going to do?” and that spirals and leads on. Something that might have been relatively more neutral or maybe even somewhat negative now becomes this doom and gloom type of scenario. Sometimes people adopt this all-or-nothing kind of thinking, something is either 100% good or 100% bad. It’s either “I’m doing really well” or “I’m doing awful.” So you also just want to be careful about jumping to the extremes in how you interpret situations.
LA: Professor Wang says that one way to get out of this “doom and gloom” mindset is to see things from an outside point of view.
SWW: Sometimes I tell people “What would you tell a friend?” Let’s say a friend just told you about what happened and how they’re thinking about it: “Oh, I’m such a terrible person” and “How am I going to get through this?” What would tell a friend? And sometimes it’s really astounding that someone who’s telling themselves really pessimistic or criticizing and blaming kinds of things, if you now make the situation about a friend or someone that they care about, all of the sudden they have these great depths of compassion or more flexibility in how they think about it. Sometimes you just have to reorient that kind of thinking, like “What would you tell a friend who was telling you this? Would you be saying the same things to them that you’re saying to yourself?” I really think that kind of checking your thinking about it – because that’s where everything starts. One thing I’ll point out is that with the HPA axis that releases cortisol at the end, it all starts with the brain. It starts with how your brain is perceiving a situation, whether it’s detecting something as a threat.
PG: Big thanks to Adam and Shu-Wen for speaking with us.
LA: To recap, stress is not all bad, but many of us overestimate the threats around us. Adam suggested keeping a good routine that helps you regularly sleep, eat, and get exercise. When you slip out of this routine, take a self care day to reset yourself.
PG: Professor Wang suggested reframing your perspective. What would you say to a friend in your situation?
LA: To close this episode, here’s some food for thought about stress.
PG: Last week, we spoke with Derek Hopkins from Prana Das Yoga about sleep. But he also had an interesting thought about what a life without negative stress would look like.
Derek Hopins: In my yoga therapy training, which I just finished here – it’s a thousand-hour training about yoga therapy, and it deals solely one-on-one, and it deals with stress. And we really learned and observed that stress is something we create. It’s not something that really exists – it exists in nature, it does, but we tend to invent stress inside. So, yeah, to live this stress-less way is definitely more beneficial to our cells and organs. The cortizone that you release through stress is there to protect us but only at certain times, when we’re in real danger or whatever. But we tend to bring this out daily: stress about school, about this, about career, about family. It just goes on and on. We don’t need to live with it, is the motto. We don’t need to.
PG: There’s actually an episode about stress in which we’re talking about how – pretty much what you just said – stress is designed to be helpful for us, it’s designed to be our friend, but it’s actually a really bad friend. It activates at the wrong times. So “How do we appraise things better?” is really important.
DH: If you look at animals – I love looking at the animal kingdom a lot, because it gives you a great perspective on existence – if you look at a gazelle, it’s grazing, it’s grazing, it’s grazing, and then this gazelle’s going to lift its head up and look around every now and then, out of its nature to defend itself. Then when it sees a lion, it gets stressed out. And then it uses that to evade the situation, but the rest of that gazelle’s life is peaceful. It’s peaceful. It’s sitting there, it’s absorbing the sounds, it’s going through its journey. Peaceful. And if we existed more like that, we’d be way better off, if we could just be peaceful and then, when stress happens, when we’re in a situation where there is a lion, there’s a real situation to use your stress then we can use it for that purpose. But existing more in the peaceful way during your day is much more beneficial to our state of mind.