It’s officially finals period in Oberlin. Students have tons of work to do and not much time to do it. Many people simply accept the fact that they’re going to be stressed out in college. Students don’t fully know how stress can affect them and how easy it can be to combat. I want to explain the stress response from a biological perspective, emphasize the importance of stress reduction and discuss ways to reduce stress during finals period.
First off, why does stress exist? What possible evolutionary advantage could being stressed out about a biochemistry exam provide to humans? The acute stress response is a good thing for the body, increasing blood flow to critical organs like the brain and muscles so they can be at their peak of performance. A little bit of stress before an exam leads to cognitive enhancements that might actually help you do better.
It may seem strange that a psychological input — exam anxiety — can lead to physiological effects in the brain and body. Here are the basics of the stress response: Once the body detects stress, the message is relayed to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This activates a signaling pathway that leads to the release of cortisol from a small gland resting on top of the kidneys called the adrenal gland. Cortisol then circulates freely through the blood stream. It can enter and have various effects on cells in many areas of the body, including the immune system, brain and muscles.
Because cortisol can affect so many parts of the body, it is important to tightly regulate its release. During a normal stress response, cortisol is released in response to a stressor and then rapidly decreases after the acute stress is over. If a person is chronically stressed, as might be the case during finals period at Oberlin, he or she might have elevated cortisol levels for many hours or even days. The positive effects that this cortisol provided during an exam quickly wear off and are replaced by many negative ones.
These negative effects include immune system suppression and mood dysfunction such as depression or anxiety. This could help explain why people are often sick and unhappy during finals. Chronic cortisol exposure has also been shown by some scientists to decrease the size of a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which, among other things, helps to inhibit cortisol release.
So stress can actually make you more stressed. But the good news is that there are easy ways of breaking this cycle while still getting your work done. Taking a few simple steps will help you be happier and healthier and improve your grades.
If you ask, everybody has a different way to deal with stress. Some people hole up in Mudd for the week surrounded by papers; others rush to get all their work done early and hit the Feve; and of course there are those people that decide to watch hours of New Girl on Netflix even though they have a 20 page paper due in 12 hours. I don’t think you need a scientist to tell you that these habits are probably unhealthy ways to deal with stress.
Social isolation has been linked to increased cortisol release, depression and other aspects of physical and mental health. Alcohol may temporarily help you forget about your work, but in the longterm you’ll probably feel more depressed, which can contribute to feelings of helplessness and increased cortisol levels. Alcohol can also compromise the immune system; the double hit of cortisol and alcohol won’t do much to keep you fighting off colds. Procrastination will just make you more stressed as the deadline approaches and you are under greater pressure to perform. Lastly, lack of sleep has been correlated with decreased ability to terminate the stress response, and higher cortisol levels. There are much better ways to deal with stress during finals period.
Exercise, especially cardiovascular exercise, has been linked to improved memory, and has also been shown to have antidepressant effects similar to those of medications intended for that purpose. Instead of watching another episode of Breaking Bad, use those 40 minutes to go for a light jog. If it’s too cold outside, try running on the indoor track. It won’t take much time, it will reduce your stress levels and it will also help you focus on your work later. If you want to kill two birds with one stone, bring a friend along for the jog and chat. Psychologists have found that positive social interaction is a very important way to de-stress. Social support from friends, family and mental health counselors can help you reduce stress levels and better put all of your work in perspective. You’re probably convincing yourself that it’s worse than it is. I believe that with the right tools, anybody can counter the stress of finals and make it through unscathed.