Stress – causes, effects, and relief

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“Oh, hello! Wait, I will be there in a second! I only need to do this… and this… finish this experiment…Ok, done!” Well, that was most certainly a stressful moment right there. Do you know the feeling, when there is so much to do, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough time to do it? You are stressed, feel exhausted, and have a constant feeling of dread, because of various deadlines, experiments, and other obligations? Most of us know these problems to some extent, but what exactly is stress? Is it always detrimental? What does it do to our body, and how can we alleviate its effect on our body and mind?

Stress and its effects on body and mind

Stress is a multifactorial problem that has become increasingly prevalent in our society. Its effects on psychology are manifold and well documented, and contain depression, sleep deprivation, and exhaustion.

Molecularly, the body reacts to stress by the activation of two major mechanisms, the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) [1]. Herein, stress hormones, mainly norepinephrine and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream, begin to activate organs, and shift the body into a state of heightened alert [1]. This altered state is immediately manifested in an elevated heart and breath rate, blood pressure, dilation of the irises, and lowered gut motility. The body is now in “fight and flight” mode. Overall psychological stress can have deleterious effects on health. Constant stress leads to an autonomic imbalance, with a high activity of the sympathetic and low activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which then culminates in mental and physical disorders.

An interesting theory was proposed: due to our ancestors need for constant alertness, the “fight and flight” response is constantly activated and only disengaged when the body feels safe [2]. When due to imbalances the body does not recognize a safe space and chronic stress overwhelms it, it leads to poor mental and physical health. In general, stress is not necessarily negative, but dependent on its origin [3], the amount, and type (acute vs. chronic) it can be.

This normal stress response leads to a release of mediators, which are intended to help the organism to adapt to the changing environment. However, constant exposure leads to overuse, and ultimately dysregulation, and damage [4, 5]. If the stress persists for an elongated time, high blood pressure even occurs during regular phases where the body should feel safe, e.g. during sleep, and thereby affects various organs.

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Interestingly, the effects of stress on immunology and infection have become more apparent over the past decades. In general, this effect can manifest directly by affecting autonomic and neuroendocrine functions, but also in a more indirect way by manifestations of cardiovascular problems, obesity, or various types of cancer [6–8]. When the body experiences adversity over a longer time (chronic stress), pro-inflammatory genes are up- and genes for antiviral resistance and antibody production are down-regulated. Mainly chronic stress leads to immune dysregulation that is resembled by a specific genetic pattern known as the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). Moreover, with the imbalanced cortisol levels due to chronic exposure to stress, both anti-inflammatory genes are reduced in expression and the activity of the transcription factors promoting inflammation are increased [9]. In addition to genetic alterations, psychological stress increases the risk of infectious diseases to a wide range of pathogens [10].

Of note, the risk for infection is highest for individuals under chronic stress for an extended period, and for whom the stressor is located at work or in interpersonal connection [11].

Methods to relieve constant stress

We have seen that stress, and a constant chronic stress especially, has various impacts on our psychological well-being, and strong implications in immunity and infection. So, are there ways on how to best deal with stress? Methods to calm the mind, cope with a difficult situation, and constant pressure often experienced during the progression of a PhD or other large project? Yes!

To tackle immediate stressors in your vicinity, some basic principles are helpful to reduce their effects on you. Firstly, the clear formulation of goals and the setting of priorities in a specific and realistic time frame (time management) are a great way to organize and control surroundings that otherwise might just overwhelm you. Another important part is the interaction with the people surrounding you with the stake of distinct boundaries, but also the acceptance of assistance in your endeavours

Once you have organized your environment, there are ways to help with the effects of lingering stress. Recent studies showed that normal social support helps ameliorate stress-related blood pressure drops during sleep phases [12], and simple gestures, such as hugs, alleviate infection risk [13]. It is relieving that basic social support already helps in coping with stress, but more advanced techniques have emerged to assess stressors and calm the mind. Some of these techniques, such as yoga, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioural therapy showed strong changes in the CTRA profile after stress [1].

To better protect and aid you in dealing with chronic stress, I would like to recommend some methods:

Mindfulness: This method aims to reduce overall noise and distraction and focus the mind on the here and now. By living the moment in a state of heightened awareness, problematic situations and issues become smaller and more manageable and thus help to reduce anxiety and the overall stress level.

Progressive muscle relaxation: This method is based on the interaction of muscle tension with psychological stress and aims to remove cramped muscles and thus relax the equally tensed mind. Tensing and relaxing specific muscle groups in your body focuses the mind and helps recognize states of heightened tension (stress), thereby sensitizing the body to detect stress before it can manifest in more severe forms.

Relaxation to music: Take your favourite music or use several different types of available relaxation music and find a quiet, cosy spot. Blank your mind and just float with the music. The more you try this exercise, the better you will be able to “zone out” and forget about all the issues that your overworked mind in most cases blew-up to astounding proportions!

Counselling: If talking to friends and relatives or personal relaxation methods are not working to the extent you would like them to, counselling can be a good option to cope with stress. The option to talk to someone outside of your immediate social structure that can offer specific insight through experience or just be there as a conduit can be immensely helpful. It is important to disregard perceived social stigma about visiting counsellors and use this valuable resource before chronic stress becomes crushing and manifests in severe health issues!

In conclusion…

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Stress is everywhere and with major societal issues (COVID, inflation, war) piling on private and work-related matters, we can quickly be overwhelmed. While everyone must figure out their best way to avoid being dragged down by chronic stress and thus suffer major health issues, a strong social environment and a set of personal relaxation methods are a good guideline for a calmer, stress-reduced life. If you are unsure which methods might work for you, the university as well as most health insurances offer courses on how to cope with stress and are worth looking into!

Here are some important links in case you need help:

University Bonn

City Bonn

In urgent cases it is always possible to call 112, 110 or 116117.

Author: Patrick Leven


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