Stress, a feeling of emotional or physical tension, is the neurological and physiological response that happens when you encounter perceived threats, which are also called stressors.
The Stress Response Cycle
The Stress Response Cycle is a system of neurological and hormonal activities that create physiological changes to promote survival. It is commonly known as the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Physiologically, the adrenal cortex releases adrenaline, which cause your heart to beat faster, muscles to tense, and breathing to become harder and shallower. It also releases cortisol, which shuts down functions in our body that would not serve us in a fight, flight, freeze situation, affecting the immune system, the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes.
In order to turn off the stress response, you need to complete the cycle.
If you were being attacked by a lion, your stress response would activate, preparing you to fight, flee, or freeze. By doing one of those three things, you survive the lion attack. Once the threat has passed, the stress response cycle is complete and your body returns to normal functioning.
The problem is that we cannot fight, flee, or freeze to escape modern day stressors such as an exam or carrying too many responsibilities. As a result, the cycle remains incomplete and our stress response stays on. However, there are a number of evidence-based strategies you can use to complete the stress response cycle.
Completing the cycle
The following are evidence-based strategies to relieve stress and complete the stress response cycle.
- Physical activity or exercise: Physical movement is a great way to release stress in the moment. Even taking a walk can help!
- Deep breathing: Deep breathing sends a signal to our brains to turn off our fight, flight, or freeze response.
- Practicing mindfulness: Many research studies show that mindfulness practices, which can include deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and others, have been shown to reduce stress.
- Social connection: Spending time with friends and loved ones can make a big difference.
- Affectionate touch: Our bodies respond to affectionate, physical touch. Hugs or holding hands with someone can be very helpful. Petting an animal can also be very helpful. If you're alone, self-massage is a good option.
- Crying: Believe it or not, crying actually helps reduce stress by providing a physical release.
- Creative expression: Finding creative ways to express our emotions can reduce stress. Dance, sing, paint, draw, write, or try a new craft!
- Spending time in nature: Studies show that spending time in nature can reduce our stress, even if we're not exercising. Take some time to walk or sit outdoors in a natural area where you can see, touch, and smell plants, rocks, and soil.
Daily habits to prevent and manage stress
Self-care refers to deliberate actions we can take to support our own health and well-being. Some people view self-care as selfish or self-indulgent, but this is not the case. Self-care, which has roots in the radical feminist movement, is a way to stay emotionally and physically healthy so that you can contribute to your community.
Self-care allows us to prevent and manage stress in our day-to-day lives. The following are examples of habits to support your ongoing health and well-being.
- Sleep→ Sleep is essential to our physical health and emotional well-being, and it definitely helps manage stress. Some ways in which you can ensure you get sleep is to limit the use of screens right before you go to bed, do not eat right before going to sleep, and do some breathing exercises before trying to fall asleep. Visit our sleep page to learn more about healthy sleep habits.
- Movement→ Any type of physical movement helps with stress management. If you are feeling stressed out, you could take a walk, go to the gym, dance, play sports, or do some yoga.
- Eat→ Give your body the nourishment it needs and deserves. Visit our nutrition page to learn more about healthy eating habits.
- Take breaks→ If you are working make sure you take frequent breaks in order to rejuvenate yourself. This is extremely important when studying. Even a 5 minute walk can make a big difference.
- Get organized→At the start of every week, make a schedule of all of the meetings, classes, and extracurriculars you have for the week. In order to stay on track, you can make a daily to-do list. For a successful to-do list, list each item in order of due date or importance.
- Practice good time management→Academic Services has resources for students looking to improve their time management skills.
- Avoid overcommitment→ Although extracurricular activities are a fun and important part of the Brandeis experience, it is important to ensure that you are not overextending yourself. It is important to prioritize your health and wellbeing, which may mean taking a step back from various commitments if you’re feeling overwhelmed or burnt out.
We all experience stress throughout our lives. While some stress is normal - and can even be beneficial - severe or prolonged stress can be harmful to our emotional and physical well-being. According to the National College Health Assessment, 10% of undergraduates reported experiencing tremendous amounts of stress in the past year.
The word 'acute' means the symptoms develop quickly but do not usually last long. Symptoms include:
- Muscular problems including tension, headaches, back pain, jaw pain, etc.
- Stomach, gut, and bowel problems
- Difficulty eating or sleeping
- Problems concentrating
- Worry or anxiety
- Elevated blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and dizziness
Chronic stress is ongoing stress from unrelenting demands and pressures.
- “Fight, flight, freeze” stress response never turns off
- Over production of adrenaline and cortisol disrupts many systems in the body due to long term activation of stress response
- The feeling becomes familiar and people become less aware of it; it becomes their perception of “normal.”
Chronic stress creates increased risk of numerous health problems in the long term, such as anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, and memory/concentration problems.
Stressors are what activate the stress response in your body; they can be anything you hear, see, smell, touch and taste that your brain interprets as a threat. Stressors can be external and internal.
Examples of external stressors are work, extracurriculars, family, finances, time, academic pressure, and social conflict.
Examples of internal stressors are things like self-criticism, poor body image, identity-related concerns, trauma, and worries about the future.
How to manage stressors?
There are things you can do to manage your stressors, such as:
Practice good time management
Practice good money management
Set boundaries with peers, friends, and family members
Talk to your professor/Academic Advisor about academic concerns
Prioritize your extracurricular engagements on campus (and perhaps take a step back from some responsibilities)
Seek out affinity groups where you can be your whole, true self
But remember that managing your stressor does not necessarily mean you have dealt with the stress itself. You must also complete the stress response cycle to turn off the stress respoinse and relieve emotional and physiological symptoms.
- Brandeis Resources
- Peer Resources