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How to Befriend Stress Part 1: How do we respond to stress?

One day, I came across a Ted Ex video created by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University who promotes healthy attitudes towards one’s own mental and emotional well being. The video was titled “How to Make Stress Your Friend”, and of course, as a struggling college sophomore drowning in her studies, I clicked on the video. I was hopeful that, at the very least, the video would make me feel better knowing that the other 16 million people who also viewed the video are stressed, just like me. When the video came to an end, I sat there staring at the computer screen. I was not just pleasantly surprised by how far my expectations were exceeded, but I felt invigorated and alive. Dr. McGonigal just told me that my stress is my best friend. This is the first post of three in this series on “How to Befriend Stress”.

Let us start by first understanding what exactly happens when we experience stress. When you find out you have an exam tomorrow that you thought was one week later, your brain recognizes this as a threat through your senses: in this case, seeing the exam date on the syllabus or hearing from your peers asking each other if they feel prepared for tomorrow. This sensory information is sent to the amygdala, which plays a role in responding to fear and emotions, and when it interprets the information as threatening, it will send an alarm to the hypothalamus, the control center of the brain. The hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the “fight or flight” response. It was given this name because it physiologically prepares our bodies to either fight this threat, or if the threat presents to be too much to handle, to run away as fast as you possibly can. The adrenal glands are signaled to release three main stress hormones: epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Epinephrine (also commonly known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are the first line of defense; they act first to alert you of the threat. These events cause your body to physiologically change: your heart beats faster to pump more blood to your body, your blood vessels constrict to increase blood pressure, your lungs expand to take in more oxygen, your pupils dilate to let in more light so that you can see more clearly, your liver converts glycogen to glucose to provide more energy, and your digestive system is put on hold so that all the energy is channeled to dealing with this threat. If the threat persists, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, the second line of defense, is activated. After a cascade of hormonal events, cortisol is released to keep the body in the “fight or flight” response until the threat is no longer present.

This means that our body, in the presence of a threat, is preparing itself to take on the upcoming challenge. Here’s an example. Your heart feels like it will beat out of your chest as you flip open your first physics exam because your heart is pumping more blood to your brain to help you think more clearly. Increased blood flow means more oxygen to your brain. More oxygen to your brain means better brain function. To provide that oxygen, your lungs expand to bring in more air. Your pupils dilate so that you can read the exam optimally. Your liver works to produce more energy to power your brain, because, according to recent studies, your brain uses 20% of the all the energy you have, even though it is only 2% of your body weight. Your digestive system is put on halt because no one has time to think about that pizza your were craving an hour ago during a fluid mechanics physics exam.

Although this response is adaptive and necessary for our survival, an overreactive response can sometimes lead to cardiac disease, high blood pressure, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, depression, and deteriorating memory and concentration. Therefore, we must find ways to cope with stress in healthy, productive ways. In the next post, I will address different methods and also present my take on Dr. McGonigal’s new method of dealing with stressful situations. If you or someone you know if struggling with chronic stress, you can visit for more information on behavioral health services.

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