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This Week in Wellness: What is stress, anyway?

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By Eva Hill
hilleva@grinnell.edu

What is Stress, Anyway?

It hasn’t even been two weeks since everyone got back to campus, but classes, sports and work are already in full swing for many students. With all these things, some people are probably experiencing a fair amount of stress – but what is stress, why does it happen, and what can we do to prevent it?

The human nervous system, which encompasses the brain, spinal cord and extending nerves, can be divided into two smaller systems: the central nervous system (comprised of the brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (everything else). The peripheral nervous system can then be split again into the afferent or sensory division, which responds to outside stimuli by sending impulses to the central nervous system, and the efferent or motor division, which carries impulses from the central nervous system to the peripheral nerves. The motor division then divides again into two more systems: the somatic nervous system, which regulates voluntary motor control, and the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary responses to stimuli.

Stress reactions are regulated by yet another division, of the autonomic nervous system into the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. When a potentially threatening stimulus presents itself (for example, an attacking leopard, or the sudden realization that you’ve forgotten about a paper due tomorrow), your sympathetic nervous system discharges. This causes a cascade of hormone releases that activates the fight-or-flight response, generally represented by feelings of panic, aggression, and/or intense anxiety. Once this response has occurred and it is clear that any immediate physical danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system returns the body to its resting state.

Chronic stress, characterized by prolonged stress caused by frequent exposure to stressful stimuli, can have numerous negative effects on your health. The American Psychology Association has linked it to insomnia and named it a potential contributor to the development of conditions including depression and heart disease. In situations where the stressor is not life-threatening, it can be useful to know how to activate a parasympathetic response so that you can slow down sudden stress more quickly. A good way to do this is to take slow, deep breaths, in for four seconds through the nose, and out for four seconds through the mouth. If you regularly practice this technique, which is commonly used in mindfulness meditation, you can become better at quickly stopping a stress response when you feel it happening.

Obviously, breathing exercises are not a substitute for medication when necessitated by a panic, mood or anxiety disorder, but if you’re feeling generally stressed about school, work or anything else, practicing some deep breathing can’t hurt, and it may even improve your daily life.

This week’s book:

Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto is a book about checklists, but it’s also a compelling abbreviated overview of the recent history of human error. Gawande argues that bringing checklists into the professional world has the potential to revolutionize the way we prevent mistakes, citing examples ranging from a five-step list that dramatically reduced central line infections to the story of a plane that crashed because it was too complicated for humans to fly without step-by-step instructions.

This week’s music:

This recommendation comes from my sister, who plays the violin and is much more well-versed in the world of classical strings than I am. She suggests Grieg’s Holberg Suite in G Major, a five-part piece with each part inspired by a form of eighteenth-century dance. It was written to celebrate the 200th birthday of its namesake, playwright Ludvig Holberg.

This week’s recipe:

High-protein salad

This is one of my favorite things to make if I’m feeling low on energy. The fresh, sharp taste of the balsamic vinaigrette and olives blends nicely with the flavor of the soybeans, and the hardboiled egg provides some extra substance to make a more filling dish. This salad can be made entirely with ingredients that can be found in the dining hall (soybeans are in the vegan section) and it makes a great vegetarian alternative.

Ingredients:

Your favorite lettuce (I like romaine or spinach)

Cooked, unsalted soybeans

Chopped raw mushroom

Chopped tomato (cherry tomatoes work best)

Chopped hardboiled egg

Sliced black olives

Balsamic vinaigrette

Instructions:

1. If making this in the dining hall, start by putting the soybeans in a small bowl to avoid cross-contamination in the vegan section.

2. Add lettuce, mushroom, tomato, soybeans and olives to salad bowl or plate. Toss lightly.

3. Add egg and drizzle with dressing. Toss again.

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