How to Manage Stress: A Guide for the Stressed out Scientista
April 20, 2012
By Natalie Punt
Many of us have a nagging companion… a little sidekick that sticks to us like honey. For those of us in science and technology we call that sidekick, stress.
Stress evolved as a physiological response to psychologically perceived harmful situations. It is the mental equivalent of temperature or chemical sensors on the skin that facilitate the withdrawal of your hand from a painful stimulus. Stimuli that cannot invoke a physical stimulus instead send signals to sensory pathways that invoke a self-preservation response. This causes the hypothalamus to activate the sympathetic nervous system. Upon activation the sympathetic nervous system signals the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine from the adrenal medulla, which inhibit digestion, enhance glucose synthesis and increases blood flow to skeletal muscles (Koolhas, 2008). An increase in circulating nutrients provides the energy necessary for escaping a harmful situation or fighting for territory.
A default self-preservation response is essential for surviving on the savannah or a night in Allston. However in the modern world, stress can be distracting, unproductive and sometime harmful. So how can you deprogram an evolutionary response? By identifying your unique stress triggers and practicing intelligent stress management.. What follows is a series steps for evaluating stress in your life and successful techniques for managing that stress. By teaching yourself some of these techniques, you CAN avoid unnecessary stress levels.
Evaluating stress in your life
1) Identify the sources of stress in your life.
Most of us can identify the major causes of stress in college life, whether it is that upcoming midterm in P-Chem or weekly Physics homework. Snail-like public transportation, messy or loud roommates and student debt can indirectly contribute to your stress levels. Identify what stresses you out and write it down in a stress journal. You might be surprised to find the source of your stress is related to how you perceive stress.
2) Examine how you respond to types of stress.
Examine how different types of stress make you respond. Do impending midterms make you anxious or motivate you to develop novel procrastination techniques? Perhaps the act of researching and organizing a research paper is calming and soothing, whereas the brute force of physics math problems drives you into a frustrated frenzy. By identifying and recording what types of stress induce positive behaviors in a stress journal, you can identify what type of stress you work best under (AIS, 2012).
3) Think about the actions you take when you are confronted with stress.
How do you cope when you are stressed? Do you talk to friends, call your parents, or cry? Now evaluate if your response is healthy. Over-scheduling your day to avoid stress or taking your stress out on others could be just as unhealthy as drinking or smoking. If stress degrades your emotional or mental health, then you need to find healthy ways to deal with stress. Just as individuals experience stress differently, how a person deals with stress is unique. Some people find talking with friends stress relieving; others enjoy running or working out. Other ways to deal with stress include writing out your thoughts in a journal, volunteering, working on a crafts project, listening to music or hiking. However, you need to experiment and try new things to discover what relieves your stress. Once you discover what works best in a given stressful situation, write it down so you can revisit it.
Dealing with Stressful Situations
One of the best ways to deal with stressful situations is prevention. By preventing a potentially stressful situation from arising you bypass the stress! Chronic stress, regardless of what you are achieving, is detrimental to your health and can lead to a medley of health problems.
For chronic over-achievers, the best way to avoid stress is learning to say 'no' to added responsibilities. Understand that everyone has an upper limit to what they can produce well. Accepting additional responsibilities may make you feel uber-productive, but overloading yourself doesn’t allow for that essential you time. For instance, if you enjoy being active on campus, you can stay involved without being president in all of your clubs. If you are concerned about resume building, identify three activities positively related to your career. Choose activities that can make your resume stand out and focus on doing these activities very well. By prioritizing your to do list and eliminating unnecessary tasks, you are being proactive in your stress management.
Many times you cannot avoid a stressful situation; however, you can try to alter it to your advantage. By taking control of a stressful situation you are literally overriding the hypothalamus with your cerebrum. Communication, for instance, can be one of your strongest tactics. Vocalizing your concerns and feelings to others can alter your perception of a stressful situation. Communicating your feelings also gives you the opportunity to deal with a stressful situation directly. Furthermore, taking the initiative to communicate your concerns in a stressful group situation can indirectly benefit the entire group, by creating the opportunity for other group members to express their concerns.
One of the most important stress management strategies is making time for fun and relaxation. Make sure that you do something you enjoy every-day and make time for activities that define who you are. Don’t get so caught up that you forget to connect with others. Spending time with positive people enhances your life and a strong support system buffers the negative effects of stress. Doing things you enjoy can also help you maintain your sense of self, keep the big picture in mind and gain perspective of a stressful situation.
Stress should not control or define your life. If it does, take a step back and ask yourself if what you are doing will help you achieve your goals. If the answer is yes, then implement stress management practices to control your stress levels. In turn, you will be more likely to set reasonable standards for yourself and avoid potential failure by demanding perfection.
American Institute for Stress (AIS) . (n.d.). Stress, Definition of Stress, Stressor, What is Stress?, Eustress. Yonkers, NY. Retrieved from http://www.stress.org/topic-definition-stress.htm
Joap Koolhas. (2008). The History of the Stress Concept. Euprim Conference. Gottingen, Germany.
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