Blowing off Steam (and Why It’s Important)

Stress in college is inevitable. So many things cause it: the intense work load, taking tests, public speaking, auditions and paying tuition. And that’s not to mention the (hopefully rare) conflict with friends or roommates and the end-of-college inevitabilities of applying to masters’ programs or going through the job interview process.

We seem to know instinctively that certain things are good for us when it comes to managing stress. Things like exercise, breathing fresh air, connecting with friends and taking time to rest. We crave these aspects of life and yet sometimes resist them because they seem frivolous, superfluous and counterproductive to the work we need to get done. But there is actually science behind why “all work and no play” is not the best scenario for your mind, emotions or body. A case could be made, in fact, that it’s scientifically important to play, laugh and have a good time!

The Biology of Stress. Stress has measurable effects on your body which are not innately bad. When your body perceives something as stressful or threatening, a fight or flight “alarm system” goes off. The hypothalamus in your brain activates your pituitary gland which is turn triggers your adrenal gland to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Your body and brain suddenly become more alert and active (ready to fight or take flight). As this occurs, your heart rate and blood pressure elevate, your rate of breathing increases and more sugar is released into your bloodstream. Your immunity is heightened and your digestive system is temporarily suppressed. All of this is by design, and allows you to better handle whatever difficult or stressful situation you’re facing. Once the stressful event has passed, your bodily system returns to a normalized state.

Stress becomes negative when it is chronic. When the body’s stress response system is constantly put to use your stress hormones can actually become depleted. An eventual breakdown in health (whether mental or emotional) is probably not far off. We were never meant to live in a state of perpetual stress. So why not take an intentional break from it?

Stress Management. Here is where rest, social interaction and fun come into play. Sociology researchers from the University of Texas concluded that the emotional support resulting from our social connections actually reduces the damaging effects of stress. The opposite is true as well: people who are consistently lacking social interaction are more likely to experience elevated levels of stress and inflammation, as well as damaged mental health.

Emotional connection can happen when we process our stories, share the deepest parts of our heart and interact with others on a spiritual level. These activities are healthy and beneficial. But so is the light-hearted and old-fashioned form of connection called simply play. Sometimes the most beneficial choice we can make is to watch a funny movie or just goof around with friends.

We have all experienced the unexplainable emotional relief we feel after a good laugh! In fact, a 2017 study showed that laughter relieves pain, brings a greater sense of happiness, and increases immunity. It has also been shown to reduce the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine. Simultaneously, laughter increases levels of health-enhancing hormones, such as feel-good endorphins. When we laugh, we inhale oxygen which is good for our brain and all the cells in our body. No wonder we enjoy a good laugh!

Other stress relieving strategies include: exercise, which can relieve built-up tension, being outside in nature which has been shown to improve bodily function and decrease stress levels and practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. So while stress is unavoidable—not just in college but in all of life—the management of it is not necessarily difficult to come by. Listen to your body and when you feel stress beginning to get the better of you, opt for a healthy release. Your friends will probably thank you, and you might just make a great memory in the process.