Stress: its effects and how to manage it

Our bodies have evolved to respond to threats. In human history, being able to quickly react to predators and run away was key to survival. Nowadays, our stressors may be somewhat less life-threatening, but our bodies haven’t quite caught up: when faced with an impending essay deadline or Trinity term exams, we activate the same stress response our ancestors did. Recently, much has been made of the detrimental effects stress can have on our health – but is this always the case, or can stress be positive?

The hormone responsible for the short-term effects of stress is adrenaline. When your body is in “fight or flight” mode, adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster, raises blood pressure, and triggers the release of glucose into the bloodstream – all things that are great when you’re trying to flee from a sabre-toothed tiger or jump out of the way of an approaching car. After this initial surge of adrenaline, the brain releases hormones that keep the fight-or-flight response going by releasing the stress hormone cortisol. This long-term response is what is thought to negatively impact physical health.

Intuitively, it seems obvious that long-term stress is bad for our health. Psychological stress is often experienced strongly in the body as headaches, exhaustion, or feeling tense. However, the exact link between psychological stress and physical illness was long unclear. It’s only in the past decades that evidence has suggested the negative health effects of stress could be due to inflammation. The first studies linking human stress and the immune system emerged in the 1990s, when researchers took a sample of healthy volunteers and asked them to rate their stress levels. The volunteers were then exposed to the common cold virus, and results showed that the subjects with higher stress scores were more likely to catch a cold. Later research revealed that cortisol down-regulates the immune response, allowing the body to expend more energy on fighting off the perceived threat instead of fighting off illnesses. When there is a lot of cortisol, such as when a person is chronically stressed, this response is attenuated as the body becomes less sensitive to it. This reduced sensitivity to the inflammation-reducing effects of cortisol means that inflammation will be increased, affecting not only the response to infections, but also fostering the development of diseases such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease.

It’s not necessarily stress itself that is bad for our health, but our beliefs around and responses to it.

Despite evidence that long-term stress can contribute to inflammation and thereby negatively affect health, there is still hope. First of all, moderate stress can also be good for you. When its levels are at a sweet spot, adrenaline can improve brain function and foster new connections between brain cells, promoting learning and adaptation.

Second, it’s becoming clear that it’s not necessarily stress itself that is bad for our health, but our beliefs around and responses to it. In a 2010 study, doctors were exposed to training scenarios that replicated stressful medical emergencies. The doctors that perceived the tasks as a threat had higher levels of cortisol and reported feeling more stressed, while doctors that perceived the tasks as challenges had much lower levels of cortisol and performed better overall. Reframing stressful situations as challenges and learning opportunities therefore seems to be a way to take control of the stress response. A further study supports the idea that our beliefs around stress may be more important than stress itself: a national survey in the US revealed that high levels of stress increase the risk of dying earlier than expected, but only if people believe that it’s harmful to their health.  

Of course the solution to the negative health effects of chronic stress is not as easy as telling someone not to worry about it. Many factors that contribute to people’s daily worries are systemic and can’t be controlled by the individual alone, and even within the Oxford bubble it’s clear that anxiety can’t just be rationalised away. Nonetheless, there are some practical tips for managing stress that can help us feel more in control.

Firstly, being aware that stress can also have positive effects on your brain has been shown to be helpful for people in nerve-wracking situations. Similarly, reframing things as challenges rather than threats can shed more of a positive light on them. Second, keeping a journal is a great way to identify triggers and what makes you feel better when you’re stressed. It can also help to optimise your time by making to-do lists, setting priorities, and setting smaller goals. A healthy diet, exercise, and sleep are often the first things people compromise on when they’re under strain, but making time for these aspects of life is key to helping the body cope with stress. And finally, don’t underestimate the importance of spending time with friends – having strong social support is one of the factors that has been shown time and time again to be effective in limiting the negative mental and physical effects of pressure.

If you’re struggling to cope with stress and the measures above aren’t helping, please consider seeking support from any of the following:

Head tutor

GP or college nurse

Oxford University Counselling Service –

Oxfordshire Mind –

Samaritans –

Nightline –


Photo credit: Elisa Ventur on Unsplash