Understanding stress and relief methods

by Chris Mundanchery, Rohit Paradkar, Neuroscience Columnists
graphic by Julie Wang

We all know that feeling: there’s a dreaded test coming up, so we procrastinate on homework, which, in addition to other classwork, quickly piles up. It all continues in a vicious cycle that increases stress but doesn’t decrease workload.

So, what exactly are the neurological underpinnings behind stress? Well, there are two stress categories: short-term and chronic. Stress is known for having a bad reputation, but short-term stress actually confers positive benefits. Thinking back to cavemen times, our ancestors used fight-or-flight responses to react to daily threats. The same intuition applies today. Upon facing the threat of upcoming due dates, our “primal instincts” kick in. Threat mode enables quicker memorization. More specifically, the amygdala — the “fear center” — initiates a stress response. Our brain regulates cortisol, a stress hormone, and speeds up heart rate for increased blood flow, allowing for effective response. After the danger subsides, hormone levels revert to normal. So the next time you zip through an assignment the morning it’s due, thank your evolutionary ancestors.

Now let’s talk about chronic stress — “the bad one.” We already established that stress is not intrinsically a bad thing, so what makes chronic stress so severe? It comes down to cortisol amounts released in the brain. Short-term stress triggers infrequent cortisol release, allowing for easily regulated stress responses. Under chronic stress effects, however, more cortisol is created than can be used. This excess shrinks the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for memory and learning. Even worse is the expansion of the amygdala, which makes us even more stress-prone. 

So, what can we do to relieve stress? The most successful chronic stress-relief method is taking a break. Watch some TV, hang out with friends, or better yet, do some yoga or breathing exercises. Removing ourselves from work slows the cortisol buildup, calming us down. The next time you feel overburdened, stay positive and remember that the best thing you can do is move to a more relaxing environment. If we all adopt these habits, South can become a stress-free community.