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Stress

Stress is dangerous.

It is a well known fact that stress is related to nearly all ailments, in some cases causing physical health problems and other times exacerbating them. Stress is mental health's Philosopher's Stone, through which we can observe the effect a psychological condition has on the rest of our bodies.  

The causes of stress are diverse. Sometimes it's a demanding job, a difficult relationship, an overwhelming family life and the stressors related to being a parent. In my Malibu practice, just a mile away from the Pepperdine campus, I see many students, grad and undergrad, who experience high amounts of stress related to their rigorous educational programs.

Everyone manages stress differently. Some people excel under pressure, while others struggle and become paralyzed by it. As I wrote above, too much stress negatively impacts your physical health, and generally the first signs are poor sleep/insomnia, change in appetite (overeating or poor diet), and depression/anxiety disorders.  

The effects of stress that are most common for college students to experience include over/under eating and poor diet, insomnia, poor school performance, and impaired decision making abilities. 

EATING:

Stress can shut down appetite. Neurologically, the hypothalamus goes into overdrive and suppresses the appetite. The brain also sends messages to the adrenal glands to pump out the adrenaline. The body is now in a fight-or-flight response that temporarily decreases appetite.

Over time however, the adrenal glands release another hormone called cortisol which increases appetite, particularly creating cravings for fat and sugar. Cravings for those foods may serve to counteract the stress and other related feelings that cause psychological overwhelm, and a habit of overeating begins to develop. Overeating becomes an addiction that helps to numb out negative (or sometimes even overwhelming positive) emotions. It works for a time. The cliche is that during a bad breakup someone might go to the supermarket and stock up on comfort foods high in fat or sugar (Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream maybe?), but over time like any addiction, the person loses control and overeating behaviors increase and intensify over time. 

In addition to overeating people will over consume, this might include smoking, drinking alcohol, and shopping. 

In it's extreme form overeating or restricting food to manage anxiety will result in an eating disorder, which can be very dangerous.

INSOMNIA:

Getting a good night’s sleep as a college student is hard enough. Cramming for midterms, finals, papers, and projects and balancing a social life, one can find it nearly impossible to get enough sleep. Inadequate or poor-quality sleep can negatively affect your mood, mental alertness, energy level, and physical health.

There is no “normal” amount of sleep, one person’s 9 hours may be equivalent to another’s 6. Whatever amount of sleep one needs, it is estimated that as much as 50% of people aren’t getting enough of it. Insomnia is a lack of quantity and quality of sleep that interferes with normal daytime functioning. Suffering from insomnia can mean a difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep, or both, and it’s effects can be debilitating. Most people (college students included) experience insomnia at some point in their lives, but if the condition persists it can result in a host of other mental and physical problems. Stress is a primary cause of insomnia.  Insomnia is also associated with a drop in GPA and school performance. 

IMPAIRED DECISION MAKING SKILLS:

Stress changes how a person analyzes risk and reward. Not surprisingly, it has been found that people who are under stress are more likely to focus on reward, rather than the negative consequences of taking risks. It makes sense because the fight-flight response is an evolutionary embedded call for the body to take action. In theory, it is designed to help you escape a bad situation. This explains why people who are under stress may make rash decision and fall into addictive behaviors with drugs, alcohol, and sex. While optimum stress can improve a person's performance at school or on the job, too much stress can cause a person to make haphazard choices that are ill planned.    

WAYS TO REDUCE STRESS:

Learn relaxation techniques such as meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, and yoga.

Strengthen your social network. Connect with others by taking a class, joining an organization, or participating in a support group. Although technology (smart phones, tablets, social media etc.) has made it easier to connect to others than ever, it has also been found to exacerbate the problem, and is correlated with overeating, insomnia, poor social skills, and time management problems. While I am not saying to stay out of cyberspace, I am encouraging people to make more in-person connections. 

Hone your time-management skills. Find someone who seems very organized and good at managing their time and ask for their secret to success and some techniques they have found successful. 

Try to resolve stressful situations if you can. It might be helpful to talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist about the problem creating the stress. 

Treat yourself. Get a massage, take yourself out to dinner, have a nap. 

Ask for help. If the job is too big to tackle on your own ask a spouse, friend, family member, hire a tutor, etc.