Wellness Wednesdays: Stress

Winter break is a welcome respite from Bowdoin life, and whether you spend break lounging on the beach or sitting on the couch watching TV, you were most likely able to relax. With homework and meetings finally coming to a standstill, winter break is a time to recharge and de-stress. But now as the spring semester begins, the stress we gladly abandoned has come throttling back at full force. Although eager to see friends and be back on campus, stress is a feeling we would rather not greet again.

However, stress is not an entirely bad feeling. Sure, slaving over a paper until 3 am is no fun and anxiety brought on by a jam-packed assignment notebook is not exactly pleasurable, but certain levels of stress enhance our physical and mental well-being. Adaptive stress is the adrenaline surge that propels us forward. During adaptive stress, blood vessels dilate and allow more blood flow to the brain and the muscles. This reaction results in the extra speed the body suddenly gains at race-time, the backstage nerves that sustain beautiful dance concerts, and the enhanced mental clarity and memory that appears during exams. This is a stress we should aim to have so we can constantly be performing at our best. Unfortunately, the stress many Bowdoin students experience frequently is harmful stress. Instead of dilating, blood vessels constrict resulting in dizziness, pins and needles, and irregular heartbeats. This anxious, panicked feeling is unpleasant, exhausting, and often dangerous. So how do we turn the harmful stress we often carry at Bowdoin into this adaptive stress?

A key difference between adaptive and harmful stress is the role of the mind. When harmful stress is in full force we become subject to our bodies, unable to control blood flow or think logically. On the other hand, during adaptive stress we are able to take a step back from the situation at hand and put things in perspective. Relaxation techniques are a great way to break free from the all-consuming nature of harmful stress and calm the nervous system down. For example, 4-7-8 breathing, which consists of inhaling for 4 counts, holding the breath for 7 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts, helps re-charge the mind-body condition. Wellness classes like yoga and tai chi also help with this same mind-body connection. While stress seems like an inevitable reaction of the body to the flurry of Bowdoin life, the mind has the power to soothe the body, re-frame stressors, and turn levels of stress from harmful to adaptive. If you feel yourself already overwhelmed by new classes and tired from long days, remember that you have the power to turn the stress in your life from a negative to a positive force. Try enrolling this week for a Bowdoin wellness class, practicing breathing at your desk, and most importantly take a step back from the Bowdoin Bubble to put everything in perspective. If your mind can find peace, your body will follow suit.

For more information on the difference between adaptive stress and harmful stress check out this article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204301404577171192704005250.html

Written by Elizabeth Huppert ’12.