The science behind…stress

As hard as we might try to forget the bad times, our brain doesn’t have a built-in delete feature. There are a special set of structures in the brain for emotions and memories.  Here, a part of the brain, called the hippocampus, acts as the storage room for lasting anxiety.

For the unfortunate students who still have not received the grant they were deemed eligible for, this part of the brain will retain the stress hormones created by the experience. Because of this, a fear of poverty can stay with the students long after they receive their next pay slip.

“As a result of external and internal experiences, we reinforce the neural networks in the limbic brain,” writes William Eager, Community Development Manager at Yotran. Yotran is a Dutch organisation that aims to maximise productivity for other companies by providing employees with a Work/Life Balance Manager.

“It becomes difficult to heal from a traumatic memory that is instilled and installed in our hippocampus. This is what causes post traumatic stress syndrome.”

These memories are not only hard to escape from, they are also restless. Constant exposure to stressful situations increases the entry of various hormones into the blood, and gives the hippocampus too much to handle.

The diminished state of the hippocampus causes a stressed individual to “register and communicate fear that is out of proportion to the information being received from the environment,” writes F. Scott Kraly, professor of psychology at Colgate University in New York.

A €2 coin slipping down the drain and a shirt getting splashed with paint can seem like more than just a nuisance for the student.

Adrenaline is part of our body’s natural alarm clock. It reacts to our sense of what’s important and gives us the energy we need to meet deadlines and arrive on time. That’s a level of stress no one wants to live without. But there’s a problem.

The student who wakes up to a morning full of lectures, attends meetings for two group assignments in the afternoon and works a part-time job in the evenings is using adrenaline hour after hour. The increase in blood pressure that comes with an adrenaline rush is no longer an increase.

For those with high blood pressure, heart disease is the subject of many familiar warnings. Victims of stress would sooner send relief directly to the brain, where the anxiety starts. The problem is that most medication is prevented from reaching the brain, thanks to a layer of defence known as the blood-brain barrier (BBB).

“The blood-brain barrier prevents some drugs from getting out of the small capillary vessels and into the brain tissue served by those capillaries,” writes Dr Kraly. Varying levels of stress can weaken the BBB, meaning that doctors must determine a safe dosage for each individual patient.

Before consulting a doctor, remember that drug treatment does not improve the situations we feel stressed by. Overcoming stress depends on a change in reaction to those situations. Students that are suffering from anxiety should first consult DCU’s Counselling and Personal Development Service.

Aaron Mc Nicholas

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