The psychology of stress

Understanding our bodies in high-stress situations 

Stress can take a toll on both our bodies and our minds.
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Muscle tension, headaches, heart palpitations, trouble sleeping — the physical symptoms of stress are familiar to far too many university students. But what we’re often unaware of are the underlying physiological processes that contribute to stress.

Stress, in biological terms, is when an organism (that’s us), fails to respond appropriately to a threat (that’s your exam). 

In small doses, stress can be beneficial. It can compel us to be productive, motivate us to manage our time and, for some lucky people, it even brings out their best performance.

Weight gain

Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, is a buzzword that you may be familiar with. But what does cortisol actually do in your body? It tells your body to increase its blood sugar levels by interfering with your insulin. 

While this might be a great function to have when stress is related to starvation, nowadays, a prolonged release of cortisol often results in weight gain.

Sickness and infections

Cortisol also blocks what are called T cells, which play a crucial role in your immune system. This means individuals exposed to persistent stress are more susceptible to infections. 

Anyone who’s ever noticed a correlation between exam period and time spent sick can rest assured that there’s likely a causal relationship there.

Short-term memory loss

Scientists have also proven that cortisol can hinder the memory process. The area of your brain in charge of memory processing and storage, the hippocampus, has a significant number of cortisol receptors. Elevated amounts of cortisol can overwhelm these receptors, causing damage to the hippocampus. 

But don’t fret too much about your university stress haunting you into old age — most of the damage is reversible upon the removal of chronic stress. But it’s not great news if you have an exam that’s memory-based.

While coffee and all-nighters are often considered ways of dealing with exam-stress, these practices are almost guaranteed to boost your cortisol production. In fact, one Dartmouth study showed that cortisol levels may be increased by up to 45 per cent after an all-nighter.

If you’re a regular coffee drinker, having your usual amount on the day of an exam shouldn’t cause you any trouble. If you’re compensating for a lack of sleep with caffeine though, that’s another story.

As we approach the December exam season, make school a priority, but also prioritize taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, clear your mind with a workout or tea with a friend. 

Keep those cortisol levels in check and show those exams, final papers or assignments who’s boss.

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