When Stress Invades, Combat It


There's a popular phrase when it comes to college: students can choose two out of three options, social life, good grades or adequate sleep. For years, DePauw students have been known to try and juggle them all-and they're starting to feel the strain.
Stress is no stranger to students and faculty on DePauw's campus. This institution's academic rigor and high expectations challenge students to excel academically and strive to become extraordinary individuals. As the semester progresses, students work tirelessly to achieve this dream of "uncommon success," often working into the wee hours of the morning to complete an assignment.
Freshman Brandon Peters said the stress many students are dealing with has a simple cause.
"There's too much to do-different clubs, Management Fellows, sports, going to work out, hanging out with friends," Peters said. "It starts to pile up."
In his book "Health Psychology: A Biopsychosocial Approach," author Richard O. Straub defines stress as "the process by which a person perceives and responds to events that are judged to be challenging or threatening."
Stress is often caused by an increase in demanding activity: two tests on the same day, a paper due the next day and a basketball game the day after that.
This increase in activity triggers a person's "fight or flight" response. Straub describes this as the outpouring of the hormone epinephrine, otherwise known as adrenaline, with cortisol (a stress hormone) and other hormones enter the bloodstream. This change in hormonal levels allows a person to prepare to defend him or herself against imminent danger, either by attacking (fight) or escaping (flight).
Sharon Smith, LMHC Clinical Counselor at the Wellness Center, described the surge of adrenaline as "a short term physiological tensing."
Smith explained that an extra burst of adrenaline often has a beneficial aspect to athletics, academics and mental exercise.
"[Adrenaline] adds mental alertness that subsides when the challenge is met, enabling you to relax and carry on with normal activities," Smith said.
However, if a person is unable to return to a relaxed state, then the stress becomes negative. Smith noted that gradually this chronic stress begins to affect all of the systems of the body.
"These changes in the body, such as increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and stomach and muscle tension often can lead to mental and physical exhaustion and illness," Smith said.
For example, when stress strikes immune systems, they become drastically weakened. It is when high levels of stress are experienced that students are most vulnerable to airborne viruses and infections, including influenza, the common cold and the norovirus currently sweeping through campus.
Health isn't the only aspect of life affected by stress; it can affect every part of a person's day-to-day self, including physically, mentally, emotionally and behaviorally.
High-pressure events, such as midterms or finals, trigger a dramatic peak in stress levels among students and staff. A stressed individual can become irritable, short-tempered and sometimes depressed.
Peters said that in the transition from the high school to college environment, it has been easy for him to feel overwhelmed, and he has experienced the mood-changing symptoms of stress more than once.
"Every little thing affects me more that it should because my mind's preoccupied with homework," Peter said. "It makes little things like forgetting a book stress me out even more."
Some students and faculty rely on stimulants, such as caffeine to stay alert and focused throughout the day. For some, drinking multiple cups of coffee before early morning classes has become a crucial step to their daily routine.
Students who partake in late night study sessions often rely on other stimulants, such as energy drinks, to remain alert. These beverages contain high amounts of caffeine, sugar and other ingredients that can temporarily increase alertness and productivity. However, the overconsumption of these drinks can lead to agitation, increased anxiety and insomnia.
However, there are many ways to avoid and combat stress. DePauw offers many resources to help students and faculty deal with the kinds of stress that are impossible to avoid in a college atmosphere.
Smith herself facilitates one of these resources called "Stress Less." The "Stress Less" group engages students in stress management through meditation, drumming, HeartMath and Energy medicine. Other DePauw programs encouraging stress reduction include PAWS for Stress and faculty and staff weekly meditation groups. Counseling services are also available to all students, faculty and staff.
There are many simpler ways of combatting stress as well. Regular exercise is an excellent way of discharging stress. The Lilly Center offers exercise classes, such as yoga, Zumba, water aerobics and Pilates as a way for students to recharge their batteries.
"Whenever I'm too stressed, I know it's time to go for a run," Peters said.
Meditating at the Prindle Institute and being outdoors help significantly reduce the stress in the daily lives of students.
"Going to a concert, a play, or art exhibit on campus can also help," Smith said.
Stress isn't going anywhere. In the action-packed lives those on DePauw's campus lead it's often hard to find enough time to sleep, much less sit back and relax. But with fewer cups of coffee and more exercise, many students and faculty alike may find themselves feeling calmer, more prepared, and most importantly, less stressed.