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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Column: A little stress is a good thing

Dr. Brassington turned the little mirror toward me so I could see my teeth.

“See those little grooves?” he asked.

Those couldn’t be cavities.

“You’ve been clenching your teeth,” he said, “and now you’ve got dents in your molars.”

Brassington explained that I had probably been clenching my teeth at night without even realizing. But he was wrong. Last year, during a stressful patch of schoolwork and social-drama, I had been clenching my teeth nonstop. It was a reaction to tension, but doing so caused more tension. And because of the clenching, I got splitting headaches and jaw pain.

Stress: a side-effect of the glorious college experience. We are told to combat stress by studying steadily instead of cramming and by finding ways to relax. For me, this advice does as much good as Seinfeld’s dad’s “SERENITY NOW!” mantra.

Stress starts in the brain, but it takes over the whole body. While college students complain about stress, scientists research it. Turns out there are different kinds of stress – good and bad – and different physical reactions to stress.

Dr. Blythe Corbett, assistant clinical professor in the UC Davis department of psychiatry, explained a typical reaction to a sudden, stressful event.

“There’s not just one reaction,” Corbett said. “There’s a whole cascade of hormones in the body.”

Let’s say you have a pop quiz in your English lit class. Your brain reacts to this news by firing up the “HPA axis.” The HPA axis is the combination of your hypothalamus (in your brain), your pituitary gland (beneath your brain) and your adrenal gland (near your kidneys). While you are sitting in class – stressing out because you can’t remember who wrote Paradise Lost – these parts of your neuroendocrine system are producing powerful stress hormones. Stress hormones, like cortisol, re-route energy to your muscles.

At the same time, your “sympathetic nervous system” kicks in. This involuntary part of your nervous system increases your heart rate, lung function and even dilates your pupils so you can see better.

These physical reactions don’t do much good during exams, but Corbett explained that stress evolved to help animals survive.

“A certain level of stress really helps us to prepare,” Corbett said. “It’s adaptive.”

If you were a hunter-gatherer in the olden-days, an effective reaction to stress would help you escape hungry lions or approaching floods. While humans rarely have to escape predators anymore, the effects of stress are still helpful; soldiers on a battlefield are able to respond to danger quickly because of stress hormones and the sympathetic nervous system.

This sudden-event kind of stress is called metabolic stress. Corbett explained that the stress that college students feel most often is called psychological stress.

“There’s a psychological or emotional response to [the stress], as opposed to your body responding to a life threatening event,” Corbett said.

Psychological stress is an ongoing problem – the kind of tension that builds as you fall behind on reading and anticipate finals. As my dentist noticed, too much psychological stress has physical effects. Sleep disruption, high blood pressure, weight loss or weight gain are also associated with chronic psychological stress.

I asked Corbett if humans ever just adapt to chronic stress. Maybe, like with caffeine intake, we can get used to the high levels of stress hormones and stop noticing?

Nope.

“There’s a dampening of the system,” Corbett said.

Constant tension doesn’t strengthen us; it just wears away at our ability to deal with anxiety and leads to conditions like depression.

Again, a little bit of psychological stress can be a good thing. That nagging feeling is a great motivator. Without stress, I would have trouble starting essays or going jogging.

I admit- it’s hard to find the right balance.

Picture me with a giant, blue, plastic mouth-guard. That’s what I had to wear at night – for weeks – in order to cure my teeth-clenching problem.

Now I just chew on ballpoint pens.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT also de-stresses by singing Disney songs at the top of her lungs. Hakuna matata. To express condolences to her roommates, e-mail Madeline at memschmidt@ucdavis.edu.

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