Marc Wilson: Uptight’s upside

By Marc Wilson In Psychology

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3rd June, 2014 Leave a Comment

How’s it going? Life treating you well? ’Sup?

These are the kinds of deeply personal and sensitive questions not to ask university students or staff in the run-up – or downward spiral – to mid-year exams. Normally mild-mannered and unflappable people can be transformed into either the Hulk or quivering jelly as they contemplate all that stands between them and the next night off.

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Yes, life can be stressful, and some times are more stressful than others. So what can be done to manage tense times?

There are many books to turn to – I like I’ve Had it Up to Here: From Stress to Strength, by Gaynor Parkin and Sarah Boyd. The typical book on the subject has an exposition of what stress is and why we experience it, followed by tips and tricks for managing it.

This is useful because it tells us stress is a natural part of life – and even has benefits. In our evolutionary past, the physiological and neurological changes produced as part of our stress reaction helped us to survive, and even though we’re unlikely to be chased by toothy beasts in our contemporary lives, these changes can help us do things well in the short term. So what’s going on?

First, triggering a stress response requires us to interpret things going on around us as in some way threatening. Stress, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder. We all have slightly different stress thresholds, so we shouldn’t punish ourselves by constantly going to the brink.

When our environment throws things at us that we feel are outside our ability to cope, that triggers the release of a variety of chemicals in our systems, including such hormones as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine.

These ramp up activity in some parts of our bodies. For example, our heart rate rises and oxygen transfer in our lungs increases, all the better to run away from pursuing carnivores. At the same time as we feel more alert and ready to fight or flee, energy-consuming activity in systems such as digestion and in the brain’s frontal lobes is dampened.

Ah, the frontal lobes – home of the little voice that, asks, “Is it really a good idea to surf this car while it’s going?”, as well being involved in things concentration, short-term memory and the like. Why shut these down? To speed our reactions that might make the difference between wondering “is that a tiger or a lion?” and dinnertime for said animal.

This is a good thing for survival and for doing well in high-stress situations – many people report that high-level performance goes hand-in-hand with butterflies and nervousness. But it’s a bad thing if it goes on too long: when you go from one stressful situation to another or stew on a particular problem.

In these situations, we don’t get the chance to return to a relaxed state. Because concentration is affected, it’s also more difficult to work out solutions, potentially setting the scene for more serious consequences such as depression and anxiety.

Chronic stress can wear us out and can affect health indirectly too. It can lead us to make poorer dietary decisions, resort to inappropriate coping (Central Otago pinot noir, I’m looking at you) and give us an excuse not to exercise when research shows physical activity is one of the best coping strategies.

That describes the problem; how to fix it will be the subject of another column. This one, fortunately, was easy to write – no stress here. S’all good.

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