Coming Back to Earth When Stress Skyrockets

Violet Oliver, Journalist

Grades. Testing. Friendships. Relationships. College applications. If any of these things have set off your internal panic alarm, you likely have a common case of teenage stress. But what exactly is stress, and why does it have to dominate our lives? How can we manage stress if we can’t make neon-colored slime for an afternoon or fit 6 hours of meditation into our schedules?


In many ways, stress is a purely psychological feeling. Few of us regularly experience being chased by a lion, or having a fistfight with a voracious predator. However, this is the type of scenario that our stress response is engineered to combat, and it has evolved over millennia. Unfortunately, evolution failed to predict that one day we might be staring in front of a screen late at night, scrambling to complete that assignment which mysteriously escaped our conscious until twelve minutes before the deadline. Although we as humans are not biologically equipped to handle such stressful all-nighters, we can at least try to reconcile the stress response we do have, and with a little effort make up for our shortcomings.


One of the hallmarks of the human stress response is the secretion of glucocorticoid, a stress hormone. All humans have a base level of stress hormones in our bloodstream at any given time, but when we get stressed, glucocorticoid secretion skyrockets. Raised stress levels have been associated with increased likelihoods of memory problems, diabetes, heart disease, decreased pain tolerance, memory problems, and early death. Without getting too stressed about the consequences of being stressed, it might be wise to look at the ways that we can minimize excessive glucocorticoid secretion.


Coming back to having a fist-fight with a voracious predator, our stress response is largely physical, with noticeable increases in heart rate, and more blood and energy diverted to the muscles. This is why you feel equipped to run a marathon before giving a class presentation, even if you can’t remember a single word on those slides. Managing physical stress is simple; if you are being chased by a lion, run away until you or it gets tired. Managing mental stress is a little more challenging, but a few key concepts have shown to lower stress levels in both humans and animals.


The first: having some control over the situation. Multiple studies have shown that rats with learned helplessness, i.e. “I will get a painful electric shock and there’s nothing I can do about it” have dramatically increased stress levels than rats who could, say, pull a lever to help mitigate the electric shock. Surprisingly, the lever-trained rats did better than the helpless rats even if the researchers turned off the lever’s control. In short, even thinking you have control lowers stress. Switching from the “I will have a bad grade and there’s nothing I can do about it” mentality to “I hope my teacher responds to the email about that missing assignment” can do a world of good for the stress response, even if it’s merely on a subconscious level.


There are many benefits that come with looking on the sunny side of life, and a lowered stress response happens to be one of them. Studies have proven this using more rats, and their inbuilt fear of electrocution. Rats that received 5 shocks one day and 10 the next would have an elevated stress response, while rats that received 10 shocks on the first day and 5 on the second showed the opposite, clearly thinking optimistically about the world. Humans can take a lesson from our tiny, cheese-loving relatives by not forgetting about the events that are getting better in our lives. Believing in a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how far off, puts the mind at ease.


The third and most recognizable form of stress management is finding some way to release the stress altogether. While there are many unhealthy forms of coping with stress – substance abuse, being nasty on social media, and smashing up the family heirlooms, to name a few, alternate methods do exist. Physical exercise is an excellent choice, as it gives purpose to the body’s mostly physical stress response. Writing thoughts down on paper or even writing a to-do list before retiring to bed might just save you the night’s sleep. Unfortunately, you’ll never wake up to a stress-free world, and there isn’t one cure-all solution to stress either. But by identifying this stress and how best to handle it, a world of unicorns and rainbows doesn’t seem too far off.

For further reading: Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers by Robert M. Sapolsky