Stress: was once useful, now a nuisance
There are some words in the English language that have lost a little bit of their meaning. Many people have their own meaning and parameters for such words.
This causes them to become twisted in the eyes of many people, simply because in reality there is no exact definition for them.
This refers largely to matters of the human condition. Matters of the human condition, however, is an umbrella term that refers to all things truly ‘human’. Emotions, intelligence, and characteristics, for instance.
To put some sort of parameter on these matters of the human condition is nigh on impossible for the layman, not least because of the question of how to define a maximum for these concepts.
Stress is one such phenomenon that would come under this convoluted banner. It has a number of definitions, with reference to emotional, physical and pathological stress, among many others.
Some stress is undeniably self induced. On the other hand, stress is also an unfortunate collision of circumstances. But most is unavoidable, merely pains of daily life.
Unfortunately, stress is a phenomenon that we are all too familiar with. It is an unfortunate by-product of an evolved ‘kick up the backside’ that is, or at least was, entirely necessary.
Stress comes from the “fight or flight response”. It is an evolved function that if our ancestors had a lack of it, the human race would not be here today.
The issue is that the stresses faced by our ancestors and present day humans differ greatly.
This response was evolved not just generations but entire species before today, and was originally meant as a defence against looming predators with big, pointy, gnashing teeth.
Today, for us students, it is undeniably elicited by looming deadlines. Whether one would equate the two is debatable, but it does demonstrate the fact that stress is most certainly relative to certain factors.
“Fight or flight”, the term I used to describe the stress experienced by our ancestors, is caused by the release of neurotransmitters, which act to shut down some of the more unnecessary parts of the brain so that energy can be directed to the two principle ways of fending off predators, fighting or fleeing. Therefore, one can see why this was useful millennia ago, yet nowadays it is simply a nuisance.
In neuro-scientific terms, adrenaline is released, shutting down a lot of the functions that our frontal lobe of the brain controls.
These functions would be deemed unnecessary for defending against predators. However, for us, these are more vital for the less life-threatening stresses of modern day life.
This then results in a lack of functioning for the person involved and, in turn, causes frustration at themselves and others, causing them to act out of character.
That is the mechanism in a nutshell, but to define the possible stresses in life would mean almost exhausting the English language.
The range of rational and irrational stresses in life are almost incalculable. It is a facet of one of the unfortunate by-products of the insurmountable complexity and variability of our human condition.
Typically, the main stresses in life can range from family and social issues, to work pressures and personal challenges.
However, the most formidable feature of stress is the way that they can build upon each other. Even minor stress can add up and become more difficult to overcome.
This is what makes pathological stress all the worse. By pathological stress, I refer to the unavoidable stresses from conditions such as phobias and anxiety.
So, those with what is known as ‘high trait anxiety’, are already on edge as much as someone with an important interview or exam that day, for instance.
Naturally, students can have a high level of anxiety due to their lifestyles. For example, this can be caused by late nights that lead to a lack of sleep; an on average high caffeine intake; and a typically high weekly alcohol intake are just a few causes of anxiety.
That’s not to mention the likes of deadlines, job prospects, and even money issues. The list goes on.
These can all lead to a high level of stress in life that is preexisting. This happens even before your bus makes you late that morning, or if you spill your coffee over your notes for that day. So, in general, stress avoidance has been highlighted as somewhat of a key issue facing today’s students.
The other issue facing students is the ideal built up of them. We have pressure to live up to academic standards by day and being party animals by night. This is an undeniable image that society paints a picture of.
It appears that these can never truly switch off. This can almost add a competitive nature to socialising to what exists on the academic side.
Several ways of dealing with stress are in the public domain. The issue is that many people seek to deal with stress as a whole issue, all in one hit. And, especially since stress can be caused by a multitude of issues, this becomes problematic.
Escapism is one such method, the idea that stress can be dissipated by relinquishing a grasp on reality almost.
Escapism can take many forms, even video games have been extolled. The opportunity in a video game to create a new persona, live a different lifestyle allows a release of stress for many people on a daily basis.
The problem for those affected by stress is that not much is known about how to deal with it in smaller chunks. CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, teaches such techniques.
The principle is that stress and the anxieties it causes are brought on by a continuous cycle: a situation elicits an emotion, the emotion causes bodily processes that contribute to behaviour, and the behaviour influences the situation. The one part of the cycle that we have control over is behaviour and this is what is sometimes unclear.
Small changes to behaviour in stressful situations can really reduce stress. For instance, taking escapism to a smaller scale. Instead of relieving all the stress in one go, the logical solution would be to zone out for a moment and take a deep breath.
This simple breath removes you from the stressful situation mentally for a moment, and more importantly reduces the release of adrenaline that starts the process that I have described.
Little changes such as these actually allows activities used to escape stress and anxiety to become an enjoyable part of the day, as opposed to a necessary part of a routine.
Students affected by stress, anxiety, or other personal issues can visit the University’s free and confidential Counselling Services: www.sussex.ac.uk/counselling.