The Effect of Chronic Stress on Your Body

All college students experience some level of stress. In many cases, external forces like project deadlines and exams cause stress. In others, it’s caused by internal fears about the potential for failure. In either case, chronic stress takes a toll on the body.

With the intense pressures and demands college students often face, there’s no way to avoid stress. However, college students can better control their reaction to pressure if they know strategies to help them better manage stress

The most unwise choice is to avoid the issue. Stress left unchecked can cause both short-term and long-term issues.

Understanding the Impact of Stress

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides an overview covering many of the main points of how stress impacts health. NIMH defines stress as how the mind and body react to any demand or challenge. 

In listing potential stressors, NIMH includes traumatic events, significant life changes, and performance at school. Stressors can be short-term–an upcoming exam, for example–or long-term, such as constant worry by a student that they’re not doing well enough to earn a passing grade.

Short-term stress isn’t always bad. For example, it can help people sense and avoid injury in a dangerous situation. It also can serve as a motivator to meet a deadline. However, long-term stress leads to health issues. The NIMH writes that chronic stress “can disturb the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. Some people may experience mainly digestive symptoms, while others may have headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability.”

Examples of Chronic Stress Symptoms

The NIMH and other experts, including the American Psychological Association, have written about how stress impacts the body. They include the following:

  • Brain: Stress can impact thinking and memory and increase the chances of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia over the long term.
  • Immune system: Stress reduces the immune system’s ability to fight off antigens. In particular, the stress hormone corticosteroid can suppress the immune system’s effectiveness against viruses, bacteria, and other antigens.
  • Physical symptoms: Stressed-out students may experience muscle cramps and pain, headaches, upset stomachs, extreme fatigue, and experience difficulties sleeping.

For many students, the coronavirus pandemic may have increased their feelings of stress and disrupted healthy cognitive processes. However, the pandemic merely exacerbated an already existing problem.

Stress Management Strategies For Students

Much in the way that a doctor or dentist might suggest you take a pain reliever before the pain hits, it’s best to get ahead and stay ahead of stress. That means giving your body healthy ways to relieve stress. Fortunately, students have many choices. These stress management systems work best when used in combination with each other.

Relaxation Techniques

Harvard Health quotes an expert in the field as listing a variety of ways to achieve relaxation that eases breathing, untightens muscles, and lowers blood pressure. They include deep abdominal breathing, a focus on soothing words (they suggest “peace” or “calm”), visualizing tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi.

A Healthy Diet

Eating a diet with large amounts of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat protein choices (including chicken, turkey, salmon, tuna, legumes, etc.) can help the body function better, lower blood pressure, and also help you feel better.

Regular Exercise

Experts recommend 150 minutes of exercise a week, at least. Another way to measure physical activity is to count steps using a smartphone app (a healthy amount of steps per day is about 10,000). Another smart choice is to take up a sport or active hobby that requires exercising (such as trail walking or bird watching).

Take Breaks

Hours spent on screen time result in hours spent sedentary. Taking a break, getting up, and moving around every hour or so can help. Another good idea is to take up a hobby that has nothing to do with school work, thus giving yourself a break from stressors.

Talk Therapy

For many students, talk therapy can help them sort through their emotions and better understand how to deal with the stress in their lives. In some cases, universities will offer counseling services. Many therapists now offer sessions online, so students do not have to travel to participate in talk therapy.

The best strategy for dealing with stress is recognizing its presence and alleviating its impact. For college students, doing so also establishes healthy stress-management strategies that will serve them well throughout their lives.

by TUW author