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Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Peer Review

Tucked away in the corner of Zimmerman Library, the West Wing—better known as Harry Potter Hall—offers a historic study space for students who need some quiet time. The ancient wooden furniture encourages a strict study schedule, emitting a reprimanding squeak every time you dare slouch in your chair.

Those of us who frequent the library know that come finals time, the good areas are overcrowded with students who don’t know how to act. In a room with a hundred silent people, there’s always someone who feels the need to have a normal-pitched conversation. Or play their music so loud we come to realize exactly what Lil Jon should turn down for.

Generally, these incidents provoke some annoyance and occasionally warrant a polite reprimand. But earlier this week, as I sat in HPH studying for the MCAT, lamenting my lack of genius, a table in front of me erupted in laughter. And they would not stop laughing, or talking or watching YouTube videos at 11 p.m. in the library on a Monday.

What did I do? Politely ask them to stop? Put in some headphones and try to ignore it?

Nope. I cried.

One big fat tear fell and then my forehead sank to the table and I started howling. These horrible people—I needed to study, and now I couldn’t study, and I was going to fail all of my classes and bomb the MCAT and I wouldn’t have a future and I’d forever remain a grown woman who cries a lot in public.

Am I nuts? Usually not. But the incident awoke me to the scary realization that stress has a strong hold on my life, particularly during the end of the semester.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in behaving a little weirdly during trying times. Numerous studies have identified that heightened stress impairs decision making and upsets interpersonal relationships. At its worse, it can even lead to the development of depression.

But of course you knew that! Anyone who has ever been stressed out is well aware that stress has major adverse effects on mental health. What’s less obvious, though, is that the influence of stress extends to many facets of our physical health.

How is this possible? It comes down to the basic function of stress in the body. Stress is a way to cope with challenging environmental events, negative or positive. The body initiates a stress response that includes increased production of glucocorticoid hormones. Cortisol is the classic example, dispersing through the blood quickly in order to unify the body’s organs towards fight or flight.

During stressful times, cortisol and other stress hormones may induce a decline in disease resistance by diverting resources from the immune system to the stress response. Therefore, being stressed out makes you extra vulnerable to infection.

Before you worry, it’s important to know that stress comes in an acute and a chronic form. Acute stress is greeted with rapid changes across the whole body that are likely to benefit you in a short-term, critical situation. But it’s once stress becomes chronic that the body suffers under the strain.

I left the library once my tears had subsided into sniffles. I was feeling the strain from that chronic stress—and decided I deserved some French fries. Munching on the fries (and a shake for good measure), I felt a little relief.

Problem solved? I wish!

Overeating is one of the most common reactions to stress. Under pressure, the brain releases copious amounts of adrenaline in the blood, which then free stored energy. Researchers hypothesize that the body prevents the further storage of energy so that it can be used at a moment’s notice. This induces desensitization of our insulin receptors. In order to reactivate them, we must consume a lot of carbohydrates. Once the stress response is leveraged, that energy surplus is stored as fat. Too much stress makes it easier to become obese.

There’s no doubt that stress takes a big toll on our own bodies. But if that wasn’t bad enough, scientists have only recently begun to discover that our own stress affects the future generations of our family too.

Biological women and men are both at risk for passing on the ill effects of stress to their offspring. Certain studies have shown that stressed men produce fewer viable sperm, although this effect is reversed after undergoing therapy. Stress has also been linked to developmental issues in newborns, perhaps mediated by inflammation.

Is reading this stressing you out now? My apologies. But I still have some good news: there’s a lot we can do to help ourselves combat stress.

First of all, try to accept that stress is a normal part of life. Certain times, such as finals, will probably be more stressful than others. What matters is paying attention to how you feel and knowing when stress is beneficial and when it becomes harmful.

Stress is harmful when it impedes your ability to function at your normal levels. Difficulty sleeping, mood instability and lack of energy can be symptoms.

Research shows that when we’re stressed, we tend to fall back on old habits—whether they’re helpful or not. Before things get out of hand, get in the habit of managing stress by setting up an efficient schedule to follow. Incorporate time for relaxing activities such as exercise and eating.

If that’s still not enough, never fear. Having a support group on your side can make an enormous difference. You can and should reach out to family, friends, or the UNM SHAC counseling services at 505-277-3136.