Feature Story

The Science of Stress

In a recent social experiment, a major Canadian university asked students to describe their state of mind in a single word and post it on a bulletin board. Naturally, a myriad of words were posted, some of which greatly question the decency of the modern student; however even a quick glance at the board clearly showed that the overriding sentiment was ‘stressed’.

It is no drastic revelation that school is stressful; in fact the history of stress in education is likely as old as formalized education itself. However, it is only within the past decade or so that science has grasped the truly horrific impacts of stress. We know today that it weakens the immune system, making one prone to everything from infections to cancers; it can cause high blood pressure – leading to everything from heart disease to strokes to name just a few possible complications of stress. One study even estimated that stress was involved in up to 75% of all doctors’ visits for young people. It is for this reason that most universities are experimenting with some sort of holistic assessments and some brave pioneers are even trying to phase out exams. Yet, for the time being, most students have little choice than to buck up, and face the stress of their courses head on.

There are, however, some things that can be done to better manage stress. In fact, an entirely new discipline of science has arisen, often called stress management. Much of this work involves understanding the complex neurological and hormonal signals involved in stress, yet there are options that don’t necessarily involve your endocrinologist.  The first thing to understand is that stress is a matter of perception. In other words, as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ – so too stress is greatly affected by how one’s specific systems perceive it. Therefore, a single stressful event, say an exam, can cause extremely varied responses in different people. We now know that genetics plays a crucial factor in determining this, and this component sometimes called the physiological stress response is sadly immutable. However, a variety of simple options exist to minimize stress from the start.

Perhaps the least appreciated of this is to simply take a moment to relax and breathe deeply. Studies have shown that students who take 2 – 5 minutes to simply breathe just before an exam do better than those who started while they were stressed. Breathing deeply will also help oxygenate the blood, which is incidentally lowered by the bodies stress systems. It can also help lower your heart rate, which is typically elevated for long periods during times of stress. From a biological perspective, the latter is particularly helpful, because a high heart rate will eventually trigger the release of catecholamines which will only exacerbate your body’s stress response.

Another remarkably effective method of stress reduction is to turn on your stereo and enjoy some of favourite tunes. A Japanese scientist showed that patients who were undergoing colonoscopies has no less than two thirds less stress hormones when the procedure was done with music. Though a painful gastrointestinal test may not be on your immediate horizons, you can imagine that if music helps here, a school test may be somewhat more manageable.

However, the most effective method to reduce stress, empirically identified by science at present is none other than sleep.  You can cut your stress hormones by upto a half with a good night’s sleep. Some scientists have even postulated that much of the stress of higher education comes not from the actual educational itself, but simply form the fact that most students sleep a lot less than they did previously. Most alarmingly, a lack of sleep seems to produce a continued stress response even after one or two nights of proper sleep. The friendly folks at the German Institute for Aerospace Medicine found that pilots’ stress hormones can stay elevated for up to three days after a week of sleeping for less than 6 hours. In general, your body needs about 8 hours of sleep to recover from the day’s stress, however, this too can be drastically different from person to person, for many 9 hours of sleep is the recommended average.

Some smaller studies have also shown that black tea can also lower the stress hormones by up to a quarter.  Scientists suspect that the polyphenols and flavonoids in tea can drive down the stress centres of the body. Incidentally, coffee and other caffeinated beverages seem to produce the opposite effect, and should be limited in times of stress. Activities that increase blood flow, including exercise are also easy ways to reduce your stress load.

In short, stress is, and will be for the foreseeable future, integral in our education systems. However, learning to manage it will not only pave the way to success in academia, but is also a vital skill to master for success in the work place. If, however, your stress ever becomes unbearable, don’t forget that most education institutions and school boards have stress reduction programs and councillors to speak to. In other words, never stress over stress.