How “I work better under stress” Isn’t an Excuse

By Richard Hou, Residence Advisor

We’ve all heard it; it may be from our friends, colleagues or even parents, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s plain wrong.

Lets look at the biological effects of stress on our bodies.

  • ·         Release of a chemical soup from your brain, containing steroid hormones such as glucocorticoids and stress hormones such as cortisol which “primes” certain body parts and functions such as the heart, lungs, circulation, metabolism, immune systems, and skin
  • ·         The HPA system also releases certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) called catecholamines, particularly those known as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (also called adrenaline).
  • ·         Stress shuts down digestive activity
  • ·         The immune system is boosted with the steroid hormones reducing activity in some parts of the immune system so that specific infection fighters and other molecules can be repositioned
  • ·         Catecholamines also suppress activity in areas at the front of the brain concerned with short-term memory, concentration, inhibition, and rational thought.

We can see that most of the effects have something to do with how our ancestors prepared for and faced danger in everyday life. Our muscles swell with blood, non-vital functions are put on standby and we’re put in fight or flight mode. You may think that some of these features would be useful for cramming for that exam you have the next morning, but you may want to reconsider.

The human body is built to endure occasional bouts of extreme stress, but with a long term stressor such as exams or midterms that may last from days to weeks, our sympathetic ANS and parasympathetic nervous systems are thrown way out of whack, with our sympathetic nervous system essentially never shutting off and keeping our body in “fight or flight” mode for long periods of time.

This causes susceptibility to infection, skin problems, pain, diabetes, infertility and a whole load of other problems, in addition to screwing up our ability to learn and concentrate.

So next time you hear someone in your class tell you they work better under pressure, just play along and tell them that extreme stress is good for studying. Hey, maybe they’ll throw off the curve and you’ll get an extra couple of percent!

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