The Biology Behind Stress and Ways to Cope

By Alexis Fringer

From the SAMOHI Helyx Chapter



Stress can be a constant feeling we all share in our everyday lives. With things like looming finals and a consistent workload from classes it’s almost impossible not to get stressed out from time to time. But what exactly is stress and how can we deal with it? In primitive times, stress’s purpose was to activate the body’s “fight or flight” response as a survival mechanism in times of danger. The sudden combination of symptoms you feel when stressed, such as increased heart rate, tightened muscles, rapid breathing, and sharpened senses, are all purposely initiated by the body in order to prepare for an escape from possible danger. As time passed, we still retained this mechanism but now no longer require such rigorous reaction responses in the present time, due to less life-threatening circumstances such as job interviews, performances, and even joining a one-on-one Zoom call.



Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons @ Razvan V. Marinescu

With a bit of background out of the way, we can now get into the actual biology behind this feeling. As you might have predicted, stress first starts in the brain, or more specifically the amygdala. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped mass located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain that is best known for processing fear and the general experience of emotions. When you sense danger or experience something possibly stressful, your peripheral nervous system (PNS)* sends a signal to your amygdala in order to process whatever you saw or heard. If it detects any danger it then instantly sends a signal to your hypothalamus, which is a portion of the brain that controls the endocrine and parts of the nervous system.

This is where you can start feeling the symptoms of stress. Through the hypothalamus, your sympathetic nervous system** sends signals to the adrenal glands located in the kidneys. These glands are then able to release the hormone adrenaline through your bloodstream, giving you a burst of energy from the increased heart rate, bringing oxygen to your muscles more efficiently. Also, increased breathing from this hormone brings in more oxygen to supply the increased heart rate that then can be given to important organs such as your brain, thus heightening the sharpness of your senses. All of this happens so instantaneously that even in the most unanticipated events we are able to react quickly. So while stress might seem like a bothersome feeling to deal with, which it can be, there are still accidents and actual danger in our world, and that’s when stress can and has saved millions of lives.


But in non life-threatening situations, how do we cope with it? Normally after the danger has passed, the effects of adrenaline will fade and your body will go back to normal.

But, if the danger still persists for a longer period of time, your hypothalamus has another system involving the pituitary glands that sends hormonal signals to the adrenal glands to release cortisol, which is a molecule that will keep the body alert. If you have high levels of this stress for too long it can lead to chronic stress, which is long-term stress that can negatively impact your health. From personal experience, an unhealthy amount of this stress has ruined many performances and exams for me.


While we are cooped up at home because of the current global pandemic, it is still very important to get a decent amount of physical activity. Just taking a simple walk outside or tidying up around the house can boost your mood, improve your sleep, and help get your mind off of stress. I have personally used this before performing and I have seen better results in my playing due to reduced stress, such as when I have taken a walk before a performance rather than sitting until it was time to go on stage.


Another simple way of reducing stress is through the type of food and drinks you consume. Tea has been widely known for reducing stress and there have been multiple studies proving its effectiveness, such as a 2010 study in the University College London proving that black tea reduced the levels of cortisol when people drank it over the course of six weeks. Another food you can consider is dark chocolate, which is rich in antioxidants that can help reduce stress hormones as long as it’s eaten in moderation. While I won’t go into detail, some other foods that can help reduce feelings of stress include citrus fruits, fish, avocados, nuts, and general foods high in fiber. There are many more ways to help cope with stress and not every method will work for everyone. However, taking these tips into consideration when dealing with stress could prove to be very beneficial!


Educational Content:

Q: What are some more ways to deal with stress?

A: A List of Ways to Deal with Stress:

-Playing with your pets

-Drinking tea such as chamomile, peppermint, lavender, and black tea

-Taking breaks and short naps (15-30 mins)

-Having a schedule and completing everyday tasks such as chores

-Exercising

-Meditating

-Doing yoga or getting a massage

-Going out in nature (taking hikes or walks)

-Getting up early

-Finishing work before having leisure time

-Taking breaks from the internet

-Trying out new activities and exploring new hobbies

-Expressing yourself through art

-Getting more sleep and going to bed earlier

-Getting social support from friends and family


Q: How does the sympathetic nervous system play a role in the feeling of stress?

A: The sympathetic nervous system is controlled by the hypothalamus which is a portion in your brain that controls many of your body’s biological systems. It acts as a “switch” controlling the adrenal glands and signals them to release the hormone adrenaline.


*The PNS is defined as every part of the body’s nervous system except for the brain and spinal cord.


**The sympathetic nervous system is a branch of the autonomic nervous system (part of the PNS) that directs the body’s involuntary responses in a stressful or dangerous situation.


Citations:

https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response

https://greatist.com/happiness/23-scientifically-backed-ways-reduce-stress-right-now#de-stress-together

https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety/tea-for-anxiety

https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition-pictures/how-to-reduce-stress-with-diet.aspx

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/10/061004173749.htm

https://www.mentalhelp.net/stress/the-biology-of-stress/

https://www.healthline.com/health/stress#hormones


Image Credit:

1. Image by rawpixel.com

2. No changes were made to the following image, File:Amygdala - DK ATLAS.png - Wikimedia Commons, License: Creative Commons — Attribution 4.0 International — CC BY 4.0




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