Just what is stress, exactly?

Stress is a huge part of our lives. There’s just no escaping it. Young, old, rich, poor, it doesn’t matter -- we all experience it from time to time. Sometimes it affects us very badly. But what exactly is stress? Where does it come from and why does it affect us?

The human body is a remarkable thing. Not only does it have many systems to sustain life -- systems that involve gathering oxygen through breathing, energy through eating, along with incredibly complex systems to maintain temperature, mobility and balanced biochemistry -- but it has a huge number of automatic responses to things that happen outside the body. When you get an infection, it dispatches antibodies and triggers a fever; when something’s wrong you feel pain, which is like an alarm bell. There are so many responses to problems from outside the body that we usually don’t even think about. Most of the time we don’t even know they’re happening.

The mind works the same way. We are hard-wired to be alert to external threats, and if you think about it, for most of human history there were plenty more threats than there are now. Wild animals, natural disasters, famines -- only in the most recent generations have people reliably lived beyond age 30. Nowadays we face far fewer threats from bears and wolves, but our brains are still prepared to respond at a moment’s notice to outside threats.

When danger appears, our heart rates often increase, our blood pressure rises, and other things happen to keep us extra alert. This includes interrupted sleep, disrupted eating habits, and a heightened sense of worry. If there were still wild beasts prowling our neighborhood, these responses would keep us prepared and ready to defend ourselves with a decision for “fight or flight.”

Even though we’re no longer trying to journey between farms in ancient Mesopotamia, we still have the same responses. And while it may seem like wild animals have nothing in common with sitting for the ACT or SAT, or wrestling with a tricky school assignment, our brains don’t really know the difference.

The symptoms of stress are different for everyone, but it’s all about those automatic responses to external threats. And let’s face it, we’re usually not wrong to feel threatened by things like exams or college applications. These are the new sharks and wolves.

Does knowing all this make stress magically vanish? Unfortunately not. But knowing the mechanism for stress may help you deal with it more effectively. Don’t judge it, and try not to let it control you. Remember that it’s a natural process. Respond by trying to relax, soothe yourself, and find help if you need it. A skilled one-on-one tutor for example could help you with frustrating school subjects and assignments, not to mention those oh-so-scary college applications. See if you can remove, or at least reduce, the things your brain is perceiving as threats. If you can manage that, you’ll find your anxiety reducing.