Getting the skinny on stress

Looking at the chemical reactions that occur when we can’t cope

You’re just over the panic mode that was mid-terms when you realize you’ve got three research papers and a lab to write and weeks of readings to catch up on. Add to that the time commitment of extra-curriculars and social events, and you realize that time is going to be a bit tight for the next few weeks.

Chances are, just thinking about tackling the long to-do list ahead stresses you out.

But what, exactly, does that mean? What is stress?

Dean Tripp, Queen’s psychology professor, described stress as an umbrella term encapsulating the dynamics between the biological, the psychological and the social components of any individual.

“There’s forces within any person for health and wellness, and there are also forces that work against health and wellness within the person as well,” he said.

He said stress differs between individuals.

“Being stopped by a police officer … could be really stressful for you, but not so much for me,” he said.

“When a person feels they don’t have the resources to deal with the difficult situation, that’s when you probably end up feeling more stressed and challenged,” he said.

Inside your body, Tripp said, the automatic nervous system’s two inter-related systems kick in: the sympathetic adrenomedullary system (SAM), comprised of the adrenocortex and the medulla, and the hypothalamus pituitary adrenocortical (HPA) axis.

When an event comes up for which you do not feel adequately prepared, it sets up a chain of reactions based on the appraisals that you can’t cope, Tripp said.

“What happens then is the information goes to the cortex to the hypothalamus … At that stage, that’s one of the earliest responses to stress. The sympathetic nervous system gets aroused,” he said.

The arousal can result in increased blood pressure, your heart beating faster, sweating and constriction of peripheral blood vessels.

“These types of things have other effects, as well, on the immune system functioning,” he said.

It then gets worse, Tripp said, when the HPA reaction kicks in.

“The hypothalamus releases what we call corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) which stimulates the pituitary gland to again secrete ACTH [Adrenocorticotropic hormone] which then stimulates the adrenal cortex to release glucocorticoids.”

When under a great deal of stress, you end up repeatedly activating these systems to the point of compromising their ability to function.

Tripp emphasized that the activation of the systems is based on an appraisal of the situation.

“You have this thought that you can’t manage or you don’t have resources so your body starts to react,” he said.

“Stress is one of those types of things that you perceive, thus it comes.” Stress can then affect one’s health and behaviour.

“If you’re stressed, you’re less likely to be compliant to medication that you’re on,” he said. “You might have a decreased likelihood of going out to get help.”

Tripp said many individuals also turn to smoking, drinking or drug-use as a “band-aid” solution, or aggravate the situation by not eating or sleeping right.

Lee Fisher-Goodchild, a health educator at Health, Counseling and Disability Services said the clinic sometimes sees individuals who experience medical complications as a result of stress.

“There are people who would come in [to HCDS] with medical or health issues, … in doing an assessment around what’s going on, there might be an indication that stress is a factor in that illness,” she said.

To manage stress, she said, listen to the advice your mother used to tell you.

“Get enough sleep, eat a proper diet, get a little bit of exercise, try to balance things out so that you are not doing all of one thing too much of the time,” she said, adding that spending 18 hours a day on academics might be a sign of an unbalanced lifestyle.

Time management can also help alleviate stress, she said.

“Lots of us do lots of things that aren’t a very good use of time, that don’t make us feel better,” she said. Activities such as deep breathing, which does not appear productive, can actually be beneficial because it can leave you feeling refreshed.

Most students know about the importance of a good night’s sleep, a healthy diet and exercise, she said, although implementing these into every day life often comes as a challenge.

She said she perceives that everyday pressures on people--particularly university students--were not as great ten years ago, partly because students now feel obligated to be involved in a wide variety of activities.

“What I’m hearing from a lot of students is they’re trying to do an enormous number of things and they’re obviously, like all of us, trying to do well in all of those things,” she said. “There’s a perception that people have to do a lot of things in order to qualify to go on and be accepted somewhere else … I think that adds a huge amount of stress, that perception and acting on that perception.” Often, individuals make lofty or ambitious goals, even if they’re aware they are unachievable within the current time frame.

“We all only have 24 hours in the day so if we’re setting goals that are realistic and lining up the way we use our time to advance those goals, then maybe we’ll feel less stressed,” she said.

But stress is not necessarily good or bad.

“We need a certain amount of stress to function at our best, but too much stress reduces how we handle the world and function in various things we do,” Fisher-Goodchild said.

“If you think of a time when you’re bored or you’re not challenged by something … it’s harder to engage with things,” she said “Because stress is our body’s reaction to stimuli, and it’s like an arousal system, so we need this optimal level of arousal or optimal level of stress in order to be our best,” she said. “The more complex the task, or the level of complexity of the task, is a factor in how much stress or how much arousal is optimal to do that.”

10 ways to be healthy

By Jeffrey Lalonde, registered dietician and
instructor for Basic Human Nutrition (HLTH

1. Eat a balanced diet emphasizing
vegetables, fruits and whole grains.

2. Do not skip meals. Excessive hunger
later in the day will likely lead to overeating
at the next meal or poor snack and meal

3. Plan your meals ahead of time. A meal
schedule and a grocery list will help you to
make healthy choices at the grocery store and
to stay within your budget.

4. Limit your intake of processed foods.
Choosing fresh ingredients gives you control
over the added salt and fat. Moreover, fresh
ingredients usually taste better. Remember: if
it comes in a box with an envelope of bright
orange powder, it’s likely processed.

5. Make healthy eating and physical
activity part of your daily life. Healthy
eating and physical activity are necessary for
everyone regardless of their body mass index
(BMI). Set long-term achievable goals.

6. Take a cooking class. Once you are
skilled in the kitchen, you will have the ability
to make healthy substitutions in your recipes
that will still taste fantastic. Remember dinner
for one does not have to be ice cream, a bran
bar and a diet pop to be fast and easy.

7. Eat more legumes. Legumes such as
kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils are great
sources of protein and fibre and are versatile
and inexpensive. Legumes can be added to
chilli, loafs or spaghetti sauce. Tip: Make a
simple bean salad by rinsing a can of mixed
beans, and adding your favourite herbs and oil
and vinegar dressing.

8. Make healthy choices when you are
out for dinner. Pizza, pasta and burgers can
all be part of a healthy diet. Try a pizza with
lots of veggies and replace the pepperoni and
bacon with a leaner meat such as chicken.
Choose a pasta dish with a marinara sauce
rather than a cream sauce. Try a burger with
salsa and sprouts rather than mayonnaise and
bacon. Most restaurants now offer vegetables
or garden salad instead of fries.

9. Be aware of how much you are
eating. Most restaurants serve way too
much food and you may meet your daily
energy needs at one meal if you clean your
plate! A serving of meat should be the size of
a deck of cards and a cup of pasta is about the
size of your fist. Check Canada’s Food Guide
for proper portion sizes.

10.Treat yourself to your favourite fruits
(even off season). People often do not buy
their favourite fresh fruits because of the cost.
Remember, expensive fruit will still probably
be a cheaper snack than a poutine, muffin or a
soft drink from a fast food joint.

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