The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the recent bombing of Afghanistan, even exams can all cause stress that has serious consequences on health.
Stress is often characterized as the “fight-or-flight” response initiated by the sympathetic nervous system, enabling our bodies to handle life-threatening situations.
The “fight-or-flight” response increases blood flow to the heart and muscles, increases breathing rate, releases energy stores and decreases less immediately important processes such as digestion and immune function.
“On a global level, humans are really well-equipped to handle acute stress. It’s actually very good and adaptive,” Rob Sepich, a counselor at Counseling and Consultation Services, said. “The problems come when it is more chronic.”
Sepich said chronic stress causes a mixture of physiological and psychological symptoms that manifest themselves in a variety of ways, including rapid heart rate, perspiration, headaches, memory loss, fear, panic, and mood swings.
Sepich said our bodies and minds are closely connected and cannot always distinguish between real and imagined events.
“We actually activate the same kinds of places in our brain and almost to the same degree whether we’re vividly imagining something or actually experiencing it,” Sepich said.
Since the “fight-or-flight” response hinders immune function because the body concentrates on providing energy and resources to other more important areas during an episode of stress, it has been found that periods of chronic stress compromise a number of immune responses. This makes the body more vulnerable to attack by pathogens, which helps explain why many students become ill around the time of exams.
Chris Coe, UW-Madison psychology professor, studies the effects stress has on the immune system. He has found that some immune responses, such as killer T-cells, responsible for killing virus-infected cells, may be reduced by 50 percent.
“There may be circumstances in which this normal, adaptive response backfires,” Coe said. “One example is when we are inadvertently exposed to a virus or bacterial infection just at the moment when our energy has been diverted away from a 100-percent effective immune system.”
There are many ways to help cope with stress. Sepich said getting plenty of sleep, drinking a lot of water and eating a balanced diet all contribute to a healthy lifestyle that can counteract the negative effects of stress. He also suggests taking ten minutes out of the day to do some breathing exercises, stretch, or listen to soothing music.
The university has many resources that help students cope with stress. Sepich leads a three-session relaxation group at CCS, educating students about how to manage stress in their lives. CCS also offers services like massage therapy and a yoga and movement group that meets once a week.
“Since Sept. 11, and especially now with the beginning of war in Afghanistan, many people are feeling more anxious and stressed than normal. Even normal, day-to-day stressors, such as exams, may feel more overwhelming,” Coe said. “It is important to understand how our thoughts and emotional reactions can color our perceptions to all events.”