Stress-Free at Stuyvesant?

Stress is inevitable but not unmanageable.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Vivian Teo

What is stress? Most Stuyvesant students picture upcoming project deadlines, a criminal amount of nightly homework, and full coffee cups every day. However, stress itself isn’t inherently any one of these regular occurrences but rather, a response to them. Pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye defined stress as a medical term in the 20th century, referring to it as a “nonspecific response of the body to any demand.” In essence, Selye established stress as any response, positive or negative, that the body has to any sort of demand (though the word “demand” is rather vague). Stress may be better defined as the body’s response to any perceived or real threat to homeostasis, or bodily balance, requiring adaptation to overcome.

Originally coined the “general adaptation syndrome” by Selye in the 1930s, the stress response is our biological mechanism for combating environmental change. The response itself consists of three different components: the alarm reaction (better known as the fight or flight response), the resistance reaction, and exhaustion. Everything begins with a stressor—any physical or psychological stimulus that prompts the body to initiate the stress response. Stressors may be real or perceived, meaning that they have the potential to cause actual harm or the brain simply thinks they do. Did your mom see the F on your math test? A real stressor. Can’t figure out that question on your genetics homework? A perceived stressor. The severity and duration of the reaction depend on the threat that the stressor poses, as well as how long it may be present. When a stressor is recognized, the hypothalamus begins the hormone cascade that is the basis of the stress response.

The hypothalamus serves as a connection in the brain between the nervous and endocrine systems. It begins the stress response by sending a signal through the sympathetic nervous system to the adrenal glands, found above the kidneys. When stimulated, the adrenal glands secrete the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). Increased stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system favors bodily functions that support increased energy production and vigorous physical activity while expending little energy. Together, this combination of responses results in physiological changes that prime the body for physical activity, such as increased glycogenolysis (the conversion of the liver’s glycogen stores into glucose), decreased skeletal muscle fatigue, increased cardiac function, and increased lung ventilation. Vasoconstriction (shrinking of blood vessels) in the skin and internal organs and vasodilation (expansion of vessels) in the heart, lungs, and muscles directs blood flow to where it’s needed most. Most nonessential functions (digestive, urinary, reproductive) are inhibited. This immediate reaction, prompted by the hypothalamus, is what is known as the “fight or flight” response.

As the short-term fight or flight response occurs, hormones in the hypothalamus and anterior pituitary gland prepare the long-term resistance reaction. A long cascade of hormone release occurs, moving from the hypothalamus to the anterior pituitary gland, and finally the adrenal glands, liver, and thyroid gland. The hormones released from these three organs primarily prompt changes in body metabolism, inhibition of inflammation and immune function, and stopping of nonessential functions. Cortisol, one of the most important and well-known stress hormones, is released from the adrenal gland. Cortisol is responsible for protein and fat breakdown, increased vascular reactivity (the ability to maintain constriction in response to chemical stimuli), inhibition of glucose uptake in nonessential organs, and stalling immune responses. The resistance reaction is intended to see you through the duration of the exposure to a stressor after the fight or flight response dies down.

If the body expends its resources and is unable to sustain the resistance reaction, it enters the exhaustion stage of the stress response. At this point, there isn’t much left for the body to use, and rapid decline and death may occur. A state of chronic stress takes a heavy toll on the body, as it never truly returns to a state of homeostasis. Chronic stress can contribute to a number of physiological conditions: migraines, anxiety, depression, ulcers, hypertension, atherosclerosis, loss of sleep (Do you even get enough in the first place?), and more. Overexposure to cortisol results in atrophy of the hippocampus and subsequent deterioration of memory, as well as over-suppression of the immune system. Chronic stress also causes pathophysiological changes in the brain, leading to cognitive, behavioral, and mood disorders.

Now, the question is, how can we avoid all of the unpleasant effects of stress? Luckily, I’m currently doing my college applications, and I’m still breathing, so you’re in the presence of an expert. There are a number of measures that can be taken to manage stress, which find their basis in counteracting the effects of the stress response. As a physiological phenomenon, the stress response varies by individual but produces similar effects in every person.

The American Psychological Association suggests a slew of techniques to manage stress, including eliminating stressors, finding social support, eating healthfully, meditating, exercising regularly, establishing a sleep schedule, maintaining leisure activities, and seeking help. Evaluating and eliminating the stressor is probably the first action to take and may be the most helpful. Is it something that can be avoided? How responsible are you for the situation? How much control do you have? Taking a moment to consider each predicament I find myself in helps me reduce the stress that I’m feeling.

Eating normally may be difficult because long-term stress hormone exposure can kill one’s appetite or cause cravings for energy-dense foods, but it’s important to maintain a regular diet to prevent further health complications. Sleeping normally is also essential in preserving bodily function and helps prevent the cognitive deterioration that occurs with prolonged stress. Additionally, despite the ongoing pandemic and fear of the outside world, going outside can be highly beneficial. Exercise stimulates endorphin release that promotes a sense of relaxation and accomplishment, as well as benefiting cardiovascular and overall health.

Persistent stress seems to be a little too common at Stuyvesant, and considering the bizarre state of the world right now, it may be more present than before. As a result, the importance of prioritizing your health and wellbeing is greater now than ever. It never hurts to look at the positives: you have free time to talk to friends, you feel in control of your work and classes, and you skip the coffee once in a while. Stress may be an inevitable part of our daily lives, but it isn’t something that we can’t control.