Photo by Reyer Boxem

What stress does to the body

Doomscrolling and snapping at friends

Photo by Reyer Boxem
Suffering from acne and sleeplessness? Are you irritable and do spend countless hours on your phone? Stress hormones can mess with your body in all kinds of different ways. ‘Don’t forget to take enough time to bounce back.’
23 January om 10:36 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 January 2024
om 12:32 uur.
January 23 at 10:36 AM.
Last modified on January 24, 2024
at 12:32 PM.
Avatar photo

Door Marit Bonne

23 January om 10:36 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 24 January 2024
om 12:32 uur.
Avatar photo

By Marit Bonne

January 23 at 10:36 AM.
Last modified on January 24, 2024
at 12:32 PM.

One week before the exam

You have seven days until you have to sit that one, crucial exam. It’s really time to get to work. If you fail this one, you’ll have to make up the semester that will add several thousand euros to your student loans.

 After a long day in the UB, you drag yourself home. On your way to your bike, you get a message from a friend: ‘Want to hang out tonight?’ While you definitely want to, you just don’t have the time.

Today’s students experience more stress than generations before them, says clinical developmental psychologist Bertus Jeronimus. That’s in part due to social media and the threat of student loan debt, but they’re also more susceptible to stress because they grew up during the pandemic. ‘At the same time, the extra stress means they cancel activities that would actually relax them, such as sports or social contact.’

But, he emphasises, that is a form of self-sabotage. It will only make your stress symptoms worse.

‘The human body is programmed to be balanced. It’s called homoeostasis’, says neuroscientist Cato Drion. ‘But we’re constantly surrounded by threats that want to throw us off balance; the response to those threats is what we know as stress.’ Stress can express itself in a variety of ways, both mental and physical.

Once home, you don’t have the energy to make yourself a whole dinner. The only thing you want is pizza. To the freezer!

‘In times of stress, the body craves quick sugars and fats’, says Drion. ‘This gives you energy in case you need to quickly respond to a threat, but it also serves as comfort food; the reward system in your brain means it relaxes you.’

However, if you are experiencing long-term stress, your appetite no longer serves any use and you just end up overeating. ‘This can cause changes in your metabolism and ultimately lead to changes in weight’, she says.

It’s four in the morning and you’re once again wide awake. The stress in your body makes you extra alert, but researchers don’t quite know why this leads to insomnia.

 The culprit is called cortisol. This substance is produced by your adrenal glands and plays a role in all kinds of different processes in your body. It breaks down proteins, increases your metabolism, and slows down inflammation. It does all this to help your body cope with stress. But it can also lead to undesired effects.

Four days before the exam

Everything is going great. You’re waiting at the UB nice and early every morning, fighting for a spot. You have a good feeling about the exam; you already know most of the material.

Usually, when we talk about stress, it’s negatively, says both Jeronimus and Drion. But it can also work to your advantage. A little bit of stress – not too much, mind – is great for your hippocampus, where your memories are stored, which helps you absorb information better.

There’s another interesting effect, says Jeronimus. The number of injuries and accidents decrease during exam time, because you’re more alert to potential danger. Although it’s also partially due to the fact that students exercise less and stay inside more, he emphasises.

Two days before the exam

All right, time for a break. You open Instagram to look at cat memes, people smiling in their living room surrounded by empty beer crates, and the programme at Eurosonic Noorderslag. You’re startled to find that two hours have passed without you noticing.

The ‘doomscrolling’ you just did is called a coping mechanism, says Jeronimus. It’s not unlike smoking or drinking a lot of coffee. ‘Distracting yourself helps you cope with the stress, but doomscrolling actually increases stress.’ There are better solutions, he proffers: get a good night’s rest, work on your hobbies or exercise, or go be around people.

The latter – sharing a meal or doing some other social activity – actually works best when you’re already sensitive to stress, says Jeronimus.

In the bathroom, you wonder if everything is going to be alright. Will you pass all your courses this block? Your chin is a mass of breakouts. When your roommate bangs on the door, on top of all things, you lose it. Irritated, you snap at her that you’re almost done.

Responses like these are also caused by stress. Your body produces more sebum, clogging your pores. Because you’re constantly tense and alert, stimuli tend to bother you more, Drion explains.

Five minutes before the exam

It’s D-Day. This is what you’ve been working towards all block long. Surrounded by the bright orange walls in the Aletta Jacobs hall, you go over your notes one more time while waiting for the doors to open. You check the clock: two minutes left. Your heart is thumping, your palms are sweaty, and your mouth is dry. Here we go.

The substance coursing through your body in the Aletta Jacobs hall is an old friend: adrenaline. Also produced by the adrenal glands, it travels through the blood to various places in your body where it can induce a short-term stress response: the fight-or-flight response.

After the exam

It’s finally over. After a week without exam stress, all your symptoms have completely disappeared. Your skin is clear, you’re eating properly again, and you’re spending quality time with your roommate instead of snapping at her. You’re a whole new person.

Correct, the stress has gone. But, warn both Drion and Jeronimus, make sure you have enough time to bounce back. ‘The stressor, such as an exam, can be compared to a fire. Your body’s stress response is like the fire department, putting it out’, says Drion. ‘In this analogy, which stems from 1952, cortisol can ease the water damage caused by putting out the fire, but it’s also important that the cortisol levels be lowered again.’

It might be a good idea to buffer your stress during the next exam period. Like Jeronimus said, exercising and attending social events both work well. But, he says, research has also shown that self-affirmation also works. ‘Telling yourself every day in the mirror that you’re going to ace the exam will help you de-stress’, says Jeronimus.

‘Getting a good night’s sleep is also really important’, Drion adds. So don’t study until the wee hours of the morning. And, in order to keep a lid on your stress in the future, Jeronimus shares one last tip: ‘Try to avoid procrastinating; learn how to plan a little better.’

Stressed students

By Enrique Aguilar

  • Yasmeen, media studies: Doomscrolling

‘When I get stressed over schoolwork, I tend to procrastinate. I scroll on my phone without even processing the information or videos I’m watching, since I’m acutely aware of what I should be doing instead. Sometimes I won’t even leave my house, because I tell myself I don’t have the time, even though I will do nothing all day. This means I miss out on going to the gym and meeting up with friends.’

  • Gretta, life science and technology: Fighting with friends

‘During exam season, I definitely fight more with friends. I know that I am stressed about studying and that I’m more on edge, but it just happens. And that’s not good, because when I have trouble with friends, it’s hard for me to concentrate. Talking about the stress I’m feeling is better, it helps a bit.’

  • Eduard, physics and mathematics: Not eating well

‘When I don’t have enough time to do everything during exam periods, I prioritise the things that I have to do for uni and work. I don’t cook or eat, and I smoke more. I feel that I also get less hungry, and since I don’t have time to cook, they complement each other.’

  • Chantal, science education and communication: Sleeping poorly

‘I worry a lot in general, but during stressful periods like the exam period, it gets worse. I am often mentally and physically restless. As a result, my sleep is poor, and it affects everything around me. It’s very frustrating for me because it exacerbates my irritability, causing me to react quickly to people.’

  • Maria, psychology: Breakouts

‘I experience a wide range of physical symptoms when under stress. I get breakouts or dry patches, and I also tend to lose my appetite due to poor digestion from anxiety.The worst symptom is that my immune system becomes very weakened, which is why pretty much every serious cold or illness I have experienced throughout the past year occurred around a stressful time.’