What does science say about stress? A talk by Dr. Rebecca Walker-Sands

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Graphic by Spencer Light | The Broadside (Contact: slight@cocc.edu)

By Adam Case | The Broadside (Contact: acase@cocc.edu)

Did you know that actors who have won an Oscar tend to live about three years longer than those who haven’t? Dr. Rebecca Walker-Sands explains this phenomenon and other effects of stress in her talk hosted by the Central Oregon Psychology Enthusiasts: “How Stress Kills You: The Mystery of Voodoo Deaths Unraveled.”

Abbey Morton, Co-President of the Central Oregon Psychology Enthusiast club alongside Robert Merola, helped in putting the event together. COPE often helps organize and prepare for events with professors and speakers.

Morton has worked with Walker-Sands before and describes her as a “terrific, captivating speaker.”

This talk was part of the Lunch and Learn series organized by COPE. Prior to the talk, with the help of several volunteers, Morton set up the ‘Happy Half-Hour’ piece of the Lunch and Learn by providing snacks for those in attendance. “It’s such a great way to get involved with the college and make new friends. The members are super awesome, and it’s great to be a part of something that is so inclusive,” Morton said.

Unlike some of Walker-Sands other talks, this was her first time giving this presentation.  Morton, having hosted these talks in years prior, has seen the talks before. She said that she learns something new each time.  “As a college student myself, I have had my fair share of stress,” Morton said.

The presentation sought a neurological explanation of voodoo deaths. These are sudden deaths from mental states like sudden shock and intense fear.  It also extends this knowledge of stress to our lives and offers clarity to the emotions we experience.

One point that Walker-Sands  made was that stress isn’t strictly a negative thing. It originally served an important role in our functioning daily, and continues to do so. A certain amount of stress is required to keep us alert and focused on important tasks. There is a “Goldilocks” level of stress which allows us to function optimally. Any less, and we may not be motivated, and more, and we’ll become disorganized. It served a much more relevant role in times past as we humans evolved into being.

Stress originally developed to solve immediate threatening circumstances, such as a nearby predator. Once the danger had passed, so did the stress. However, the things causing people stress today are not so immediate or simple. Things like school work, relationships, and finances aren’t problems one can literally sprint away from. As such stress today has taken a toll on functioning.

Neurologically, stress is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, and specifically by the chemical cortisol. Cortisol is the brain’s stress hormone. It is produced in the pituitary gland and is responsible for preparing your body for whatever stressful situation triggers it. Typically, cortisol is burned off through exercise, but as our problems are not often physical in nature, it remains active in our brains.

The effects stress has on our body and mental state are referred to as General Adaptation Syndrome. This comes in three stages: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. Alarm is the body’s initial flight or flight reaction, which sends adrenaline from the adrenal glands above the kidneys to the rest of the body. If the stressor is resolved at this stage, there won’t be any detriment to health. The next stage is resistance, in which the initial reaction from alarm has worn off but we continue to combat the stressor. This is where the negative effects of stress begin to manifest. The last stage is exhaustion, which can happen after days or weeks of constant stress, often results in illness and severe detriment to functionality, which in turn creates more stress.

Over time, stress can cause a lot of harm to the body in many ways. To give itself strength, it will dissolve muscles for energy and then fat. Stress will disrupt sleep cycles, causing a whole slew of problems unto itself.

Memory also has a relationship with stress. Upon a sudden and intense stressor, a very vivid and at times invasive memory called a flashbulb memory is formed. However, as time goes on, stress can reduce your ability to create memories and recall old ones. Long term stress has negative effects on nearly all parts of the body.

Research has found that most stress can be reduced with changes in perspective. An experiment performed on rats shows how a small amount of support can greatly increase functionality. The rats were tested for how long they could endure a stressful circumstance. In this case, how long they could remain afloat in turbulent water. Calm rats could keep swimming for upwards of 70 hours. Rats who had been exposed to stressors prior sank in less than five. However, if a rat about to sink were rescued, and then placed back in they would be able to swim as long as the calm rats. This shows how hope and perspective can affect stress.

The talk ended with a quote from William James, father of psychology in the United States, “Pessimism is to weakness as optimism is to power.” ■

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