Stress can differ but effects are similar

It’s true.

The huge mid-term, the speeding ticket from last week, the argument with mom and dad or the “big breakup” – these all contribute to stress. And that stress combined with other factors can hurt the immune system.

But psychoneuroimmunology, better known as stress leading to illness, is seen in people of all ages – including college students.

“The effects [of stress] can be good, bad or indifferent,” said Robert Ader, Ph.D., at The University of Rochester School of Medicine ‘ Dentistry. “Whether they affect health or not depends on a lot of factors.”

The term “stress,” as it is currently used, was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change,” according to The American Institute of Stress.

Stress results in changes in the nervous system, according to Ader. While stress alone rarely produces disease, stress combined with other factors can lead to health issues, Ader said.

These other factors can be genetic, predispositions from birth or outside experiences.

Ader described the process as similar to catching a cold. While there are germs everywhere at any given time, only some will pick up the germs and be susceptible enough to get sick, while others may be exposed to illness and not contract it.

All age groups, however, experience stressors, but each stressor varies depending on the age of the individual.

While everyone gets stressed, age and individual differences determine what each person’s stressors are.

“A stress to you is not the same as a stress to me,” Ader said. “The individual’s perception of it defines it as a stressor.”

For college students, big stressors often include exams, finding a job, the future and social interactions.

“They change from your first day in school to your last,” Ader said.

Effects of stress

According to Dr. Glen Egelman, physician-in-chief at the Student Health Center, student appointments increase before, during and after exams each semester. During finals week Spring 2006 visits increased more than 10 percent, Egelman said.

“Something is going on that is causing people to fall ill during times of stress,” Egelman said.

In addition to illness, students can experience other effects from stress-related issues.

“It has impacts biologically, socially and psychologically,” Egelman said.

In the long run, stress can lead to psychiatric illnesses, according to Claudia Clark, a psychologist in the University Counseling Center.

“Too much stress can lead to depression, anxiety and even panic attacks,” she said. “It can trigger the onset of biological or clinical depression.”

And while clinical depression holds a hereditary factor, it is more likely to be triggered during times of stress, Clark added.

Effects on the nervous system can lead to increased heart rate and blood pressure and changes in body temperature, Ader said.

But despite popular beliefs, not all stress is from negative experiences.

“Something doesn’t have to be negative to be a stress,” Clark said. Getting married, for example, is a joyous event, but can add stress to someone’s life.

“Anything that sort of disrupts the regular, typical flow of life is a stress,” Clark said.

But when students seek counseling, it does not necessarily mean they have more stress than someone else.

“The amount of stress in their life has exceeded their skills for coping with it,” Clark said.

Stress remedies

And with as many effects as stress has on a person, there are just as many remedies.

But not all are beneficial.

To relieve stress, some students turn to alcohol and drugs. Some students may think using substances will relieve their stress and make them feel better, but in the long run that is usually not the case.

“It really ends up causing more problems than it solves,” Clark said.

Instead, students should take study breaks and do stress-relieving exercises such as yoga, tai chi or visualization and take time out to talk with others.

“The effects of stress can be decreased by having satisfying social relationships,” Clark said.

Clark also encourages telling others about what is going on and taking 15 minutes each day to have some alone time to relax.

“Eating habits and exercise choices can be very beneficial to students,” Egelman said. “Exercise is a wonderful stress reliever. The body produces endorphins which are feel-good chemicals.”

In addition, college is the time period in students’ lives when they can start making life decisions.

“There’s a lot of pressures and there are lifestyle habits some students have which can be fine-tuned and improved,” Egelman said.

Campus services

In addition to doctors and nurses at the Student Health Center who can aid in physical ailments from stress, the University offers counseling for students, including for stress relief.

During fall semester there were 4,372 counseling appointments at the center. Of those appointments 180 students have ongoing appointments at the Counseling Center.

The center serves any student at the University and has about 20 counselors on hand at any given time.

Offered are several stress clinics for coping strategies. “Relax your body,” teaches relaxation skills. Another clinic, “Free your mind,” addresses the impact thoughts can have on stress.

“Ways we think about things can increase our stress,” Clark said. “We have students look at how they think about things and find healthier ways to think.”

The last class, offered in rotation every week is titled, “Nurture yourself.”

“It helps students identify ways they can nurture themselves to reduce stress,” Clark said.

Students can see counselors one on one or on a group counseling basis, she added.