What you need to know about stress

For university students, December can be one of the most stressful times of the year. The thought of exams is enough to make many students start consuming copious amounts of coffee and pull all-nighters.  

But have you ever wondered why you feel stress in the first place?  

Physiologically, scientists believe that stress is an important part of our fight-or-flight system. The presence of a threat — like a predator or an exam — can activate our sympathetic nervous system, causing the release of cortisol, epinephrine and other hormones. These chemicals increase the supply of blood and nutrients to our brain as well as muscles, helping you deal more effectively with the immediate situation. 

However, many studies have shown that prolonged exposure to these hormones can be detrimental to your health. Chronic stress can weaken your immune system and worsen your cardiovascular health over time.  

While the physiological consequences of stress are well understood, scientists are increasingly focusing on the psychological components of stress. 

Recently, a team of UBC psychologists conducted a study that hopes to shed new light on how scientists think about stress.

Jessie Pow, a psychology PhD student and one of the scientists involved, explained that journal entries were collected from 350 UBC undergraduate students who received specific instructions to record the stressors that they encountered over a seven day period and the strategies that they used to deal with these stressors. 

After analysis, Pow found that many students tended to classify their stressors as being either related to their personal wellbeing or their relationships. This mental appraisal process had a significant effect on how they approached the problem.

More specifically, Pow found that when students were dealing with career-related stress, they were more likely to think analytically, but less likely to to help others. When students dealt with relationship stressors, they were more likely to help others, but less likely to think analytically. 

Pow’s research is consistent with the idea that the subjective lens people use to perceive the situation can have an important effect on how much stress they feel as well as what they choose to do to address those stressors. 

One of the most important ways to buffer stress is through social support. Prior to conducting research on UBC students, Pow studied paramedics and how they were able to cope with their work-related stress. 

Pow found that paramedics who had access to strong social support — such as a spouse, a close friend or a trusted family member — were able to consistently have better-quality sleep than paramedics who encountered similar levels of stress, but were more socially isolated. 

Interestingly, the same kind of benefits can be provided through pets. UBC, like many other universities, offered pet therapy programs in the past, especially during exam time.  

“Pets are great for social support because they can provide unconditional positive regard,” said Pow, which can help us deal more effectively with stress. 

Pow also suggests that sometimes distractions can be helpful. This is because many of people have an unpleasant tendency to ruminate about things that may not have gone according to plan. Instead of replaying the scenario repeatedly in your head, spend some time exercising or doing something else you enjoy — it can help replenish your minds and help focus on the future rather than the past. 

For those students seeking additional support, UBC Student Services provides many helpful resources for stress management. UBC also offers a health psychology course, which discusses the importance of stress amongst other health topics. Students interested in stress-related research can also check out the UBC’s Centre for Health and Coping Studies

A previous version of this article incorrectly called Jessie Pow, Jennifer. The article also incorrectly stated students classified careers as a stressor. The Ubyssey regrets these errors.