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April 6, 2020
5 mins read

Stress: What it really is and how to handle it

We’re living through particularly stressful times right now.

From my perspective, I’m stressed in quite an unfamiliar way. I may be used to the stress of trying to meet a deadline but I don’t necessarily know how to deal with the stress resulting from COVID-19.

Last year, I had the privilege of speaking to Dr. Eli Puterman, Assistant Professor in the UBC School of Kinesiology and Principal Investigator of the Fitness, Aging, and Stress Lab, about how stress affects our bodies and what we can do to manage it.

While we’re all going through a strange experience right now, the way stress affects us actually doesn’t change, and Dr. Puterman’s advice remains as relevant as ever (and perhaps even more so now).

What is stress?

First of all, I wanted to find out how Dr. Puterman defined stress. At a base level, he explained that stress happens when we face situations that seem more demanding than we can handle.

We might overcome that situation by focusing our energy, or we may start to feel threatened—like how our nomadic ancestors would have felt fighting off apex predators, or how I feel having to actually call people on the phone right now.

Dr. Puterman explained further, using an example all students can relate to—exams: 

Dr. Eli Puterman

“If you prepare really well for an exam, you could be stressed, but see the exam as an exciting challenge and [you could] be invigorated by writing it."

“If you’re a student that perhaps didn’t prepare as well, you may be threatened by the exam, and the physiology of that stress will become more heightened and might interfere with your performance.”

What’s happening inside your body?

Your body goes through these steps when you feel stress:

Step 1: The fight-or-flight response 

Your sympathetic nervous system is activated, and the parasympathetic system withdraws. Your heart pumps faster and your blood vessels constrict to get you ready to engage in activity. Your body is essentially energizing you to deal with whatever you’re facing, from a sabre-tooth tiger to an online presentation on Ulysses for English 110 (same diff).

Step 2: Cortisol release

Cortisol, a hormone released by your adrenal glands, helps you feel more alert. But if cortisol levels get too high, you might actually perform less well on whatever challenge you’re facing (whether that’s a carnivorous feline or James Joyce).

Stress in the short term

If you complete a stressful event, like an exam, and feel that it went well, then your whole system will calm down. The fight-or-flight response withdraws, the parasympathetic system returns to normal, and cortisol levels decrease.

Short-term stress once in a while is unlikely to cause any serious side effects. However, what if you didn’t do well on the exam, and continued to worry about it? Your system would stay activated, and this is where some more serious effects of stress begin.

Stress in the long term

According to Dr. Puterman, too much cortisol can impact your ability to form new memories, slow down your immune system, and cause inflammation throughout the body that can lead to disease.

Frequent stress over a long period of time can actually decrease your body’s ability to deal with stress. You can build up a resistance to stress for a while, but eventually it can become fatigued and make it harder to deal. (This is obviously why I never finished reading Ulysses I easily finished reading Ulysses on time.)

These effects are not something you would usually see after a stressful day or even month—it usually takes many months or years of sustained stress for serious health issues to arise. 

We don’t know how long these stressful times will last, but we know they will end eventually. If you’ve been feeling extra stressed lately, don’t get stressed about stress—there are ways you can help your body and mind stay healthy in the short and long term.

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Photo credit: Martin Dee / UBC Brand & Marketing

Fight stress with exercise

Dr. Puterman specializes in the relationship between exercise and stress, and his research has provided a definitive link between the two. According to him, “Exercise is the best thing anyone can do for every single part of their body.”

It’s been tempting to only sit in bed and eat copious amounts of M&Ms the past couple weeks, but I’ve noticed that getting out for a run or even a walk (while observing physical distancing rules, of course) makes a huge difference in how I feel. Dr. Puterman’s research has shown that “one single bout of exercise can change our mood and physiology even an hour later.”

Frequent exercise may even help lower heart rate and cortisol levels when stressed out over the long term!

Here are some tips directly from Dr. Puterman on exercise:

  1. Discover exercises you enjoy. If everyone is going jogging, and you’re not a jogging kinda person, don’t go jogging. We have to learn what our body wants and enjoys.
  2. Get moving. Exercise is a terrible word that’s very scary, but moving isn’t scary. Even a seemingly small type of movement, like stretching or taking the stairs, is important!
  3. Schedule physical activity. If moving isn’t in your calendar, it’s probably the first thing you’ll forget to do or drop. Schedule it the way you would work or class!
  4. Start slowly. You can’t go from 0 to 100 straightaway. Start being active 2 times a week instead. Setting reasonable goals is essential for success.

We may not be able to go to the gym or to fitness classes right now, but UBC Recreation has a ton of great tips that can help you stay active at home!

Practice mindfulness, avoid rumination

Aside from physical activity, Dr. Puterman also mentioned mindfulness, the concept of focusing on things in the present moment, as an effective way to combat stress. He said rumination and worry—dwelling on stressful events, both past and future—can lead to more stress and getting caught in toxic thought patterns. At the end of the day, overthinking too much keeps our systems activated at unhealthy levels.

This is where mindfulness can help. Though it can be difficult to learn how to calm your mind, practicing mindfulness everyday can help you feel calmer. That’s because you’re creating new synapses and neurons that can change how you feel in a moment or in a day—pretty cool.

Dr. Puterman recommends Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn as a place to start.

If you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed, he also highly recommends speaking with a therapist. He shared his own experiences of how going to therapy helped him sit with his emotions and accept that sometimes, just like everyone else, he gets stressed out, too.

For resources that can support your mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak, check out this page on the Student Services website.

Find positive stress in healthy challenges

Dr. Puterman and I both agreed that positive stress exists, usually in the form of a challenge. A lot of events in our life—going to university, moving, trying to participate in a class discussion of Ulysses when you didn’t make it past Part I—are challenging, but we can handle them and gain a lot from our experiences.

When there is negative stress in your life, it’s really important to take steps to manage it. During this time, do your best to stay active, eat healthy, and talk out how you’re feeling with someone you trust. 

Stress is a part of life, but we have the ability to manage it. Stay healthy everyone!