article Fall 2016

Stress: It’s All in Your Head

By Emily Morzewski

Stress. Something that affects everyone no matter who they are or what they do. What is stress? Why do people feel stressed? How does stress affect people differently?

Stress affects the brain, which is a very complex system that does amazing things. Let’s take a closer look as to what stress is, and how it affects the body. We will see how stress takes place all in our heads.

When people get into a stressful situation, the body releases corticotrophin-releasing factor, a hormone that influences how the cells in the brain signal one another. Corticotrophin-releasing factor is what tells the brain that it is in a stressful situation. The corticotrophin-releasing factor has many effects on the brain which result in suppressed appetite, increased anxiety, and selective attention, which are all symptoms associated with being stressed. The body also releases the hormone adrenaline, which causes an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugar levels. If stress continues at a high level, this can lead to serious health problems in the future. Even though stress is the result of a chemical reaction happening in the brain, it is important to realize that “90 percent of stress is self-induced,” according to Dr. Robert McGrath.

Dr. McGrath is a clinical psychologist specializing in wellness at UW-Madison. When he began studying psychology, the field was more focused on studying what was wrong. “In the field of psychology there has been a shift. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, focus on what’s right,” Dr. McGrath says.

One of the focuses that has shifted in the last decade is the study of how stress effects men and women differently. Differences between stress in men and women have been studied due to the increase of psychologists studying stress. This is because the corticotrophin-releasing factor reacts with hormones in a distinct way in each gender. This leads to a ‘fight or flight’ response that is associated with men and a ‘tend and befriend’ response that is associated with women. The terms for these responses are generalized to each gender because that is how they were initially studied, but the terms are not gender-exclusive because everyone is able to feel any one of the responses to stress.

Different groups of people also react to stress in different ways. For example, students in particular have a lot of stressors unique to their situation. “There are different main stressors depending upon your year in school. First-year students, for example, have the stressor of moving away from home. A lot of those students also have the stressor of sharing a room with a roommate when they are used to having their own space,” Dr. McGrath says. As students move through their college career there are less stressors related to change and more stressors related to the future. “Many juniors and seniors have the stressor of ‘What do I do after college?’” Dr. McGrath says.

Regardless of age, change is a stressor that affects everyone. Change can bring about both eustress and distress. Eustress is a good form of stress that usually provides a sense of motivation or excitement. Distress is the bad form of stress and can bring about fatigue and irritability. Both types of stress have an effect on both the immune system and also relationships. Stress can lead to a weakened immune system and also a decline in the ability to forge and maintain relationships.

Even though stress is something we all feel, it should not just be brushed off without being acknowledged. According to Dr. McGrath some ways to combat stress are physical exercise (like running or walking), studying with a friend, building friendships and connecting with others, and meditation. These types of activities lead to a cool-down response in the brain, called a relaxation response. The function of this response is to return the brain back to its normal level of production.

Stress is something that affects everyone in different ways, from loss of appetite and strain on the immune system to anxiety about the future. Students are the group that is most affected by stress due to all the changes in lifestyle and living arrangements while also focusing heavily on the future. No matter what situation a person comes from change will bring about the phenomenon of stress.

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