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15 Dec 2020

Student Corner: Stress and Its Friends

Student Corner: Stress and Its Friends

This research article was written by Naveesha Kaur Shergill, Chairperson for the International Veterinary Students’ Association’s (IVSA) Committee on Wellness, in partnership with Vet Shows US.

Stress is not a new and challenging concept to grasp nowadays, especially for us veterinary students (and professionals). But do we really understand how it affects us or how it prevails itself?

Physiological effects

Among the most frequently reported signs of stress are headaches, tremors, body aches, cold and sweaty hands or feet, heartburn, allergy attacks, change in appetite, mood swings, insomnia, forgetfulness, and a weakened immune system. However, something equally important but often less appreciated is the effects of stress on body systems, organs, and tissues. 

Let’s start with the nervous system first. When we experience stress, our body shifts its energy to fighting off a perceived threat. Here, the sympathetic nervous system signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels. In addition to that, when you are under stress, your muscles tend to tense up. This prolonged contraction is what leads to headaches, migraines, muscle aches, and back pain. 

The respiratory system, on the other hand, is affected in such a way that you may start hyperventilating–which is what causes panic attacks to occur in some people. The cardiovascular system’s response to stress depends on whether it is an acute or repeated acute episode. 

Getting a last-minute assignment with a one-day deadline (acute stress), forces the heart muscles to contract more intensely and dilates blood vessels that supply certain parts of the body; meanwhile, repeated episodes of acute stress can lead to inflammation in the coronary arteries which is thought to lead to a heart attack. 

Stress may prompt you to increase your food intake–a.k.a. stress eating–and misuse substances like alcohol and tobacco, in which case you may experience heartburn or acid reflux. With that being said, stress also affects which nutrients your intestines absorb. Even if you eat nutritious food on a daily basis, if you are under constant stress, your body will reject the good nutrients leaving you malnourished. Stress has also proven to be detrimental to both the female and male reproductive system wherein males, testosterone, and sperm production may be impaired whereas, in females, irregular and more painful menstrual cycles may occur.

Those are all the physiological changes that happen when our body is stressed, but how about cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes? 

Psychological effects

Cognitive changes are most typically seen in cases of long-term stress where there is an increased risk of developing anxiety and depression; however, the specific mechanisms of how stress is linked to mental health remains uncertain. Some examples of cognitive changes associated with stress are difficulty concentrating, memory loss, lack of confidence, and constant worry. There have been studies conducted that showed long-term stress can actually cause structural change in the brain associated with memory and learning. Most of the people who have opened up to me about how stress has affected their wellness have exhibited more emotional changes like mood swings, irritability, feelings of hopelessness and anxiousness, guilt, and last but not least, depression. 

Behavioral changes, on the other hand, include social withdrawal, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, nervous habits such as nail-biting and foot-tapping, neglecting responsibilities, and decline in productivity.

Defense mechanisms when dealing with stress is a normal behavior shown by us humans to separate ourselves from unpleasant events or experiences. First proposed by Sigmund Freud, this theory has evolved and contends that defense mechanisms are not under a person’s conscious control. In fact, most people do it without realizing the strategies they are using. Although dozens of different mechanisms have been identified, some are used more commonly than others. 

Firstly, we have denial. It occurs when you refuse to accept your reality and all its harsh facts by blocking out external events from your mind so that you don’t have to burden yourself with the emotional pain. Second is repression, where you may unconsciously choose to hide painful memories in hopes that you forget about them entirely. Next is projection, when certain feelings you have about someone make you feel uncomfortable, thus, by projecting those feelings, you are mis-attributing them to that person. 

For instance, you may not like your coworker but instead of accepting that, you tell yourself that this coworker does not like you. Coming in at number four is displacement, where you direct strong emotions toward a person that does not feel threatening. This allows you to satisfy an impulse to react without having to face any dire consequences. 

Regression may be more obvious in younger children but is also seen in adults in which a threatened feeling may cause them to unconsciously ‘escape’ to an earlier stage of development. Adults who are struggling to cope with trauma or loss may return to sleeping with a stuffed animal, overeat on comfort food, or chewing a pen or pencil. Defense mechanisms are a normal, natural part of psychological development. Identifying which type you, your loved ones, even your co-workers and friends use can help you in future conversations and encounters.

Managing stress

There are some helpful steps you can take to manage stress in your life; however, keep in mind that individual actions alone may not be good enough to cope with long-term stress. Factors like community, society, workplace, government, etc. play a role in tackling these wider causes of stress. An important step is for you to realize when you are feeling stressed then proceed to determine the underlying cause. Make a pragmatic plan to address the issues you can while forgetting the things that are beyond your control. 

It is also of utmost importance to review your lifestyle and ask yourself: Am I taking on too much? This requires you to prioritize your responsibilities and tasks to ensure you are not trying to accomplish multiple things at once. 

Besides that, building supportive relationships also help to manage stress. Joining a club and volunteering at an organization may expand your social networks and challenge you to do something different. At the same time, activities like volunteering can help you gain a whole new perspective on life and boost your mood. 

Physical exercise can be an excellent approach to managing the effects of stress as well. Walking, for example, can provide a natural ‘mood boost’ through the production of endorphins. Walking for 15-20 minutes three times a week is a great start if you are not used to it. Another way you can reduce stress is by taking time to relax and practicing self-care, where you do positive things for yourself like a skincare routine, a warm bath, yoga, and sleep. 

Lastly, do not be so hard on yourself. Do not try to blame yourself for the situation you are in because that is only going to lead to more feelings of guilt. Remember, you are human and there is only so much you can take. If your feelings of stress are getting too overwhelming, never hesitate to seek professional help as opening up is the first step to letting go. 

If you are experiencing anxiety or in need of confidential emotional support, please text HOME to 741741 (US and Canada) or call 1-800-273-8255.


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