Though some of us work well under stress, the unwanted side effects can get pretty ugly. It might give you that push you need to get your best work done, but is it causing more harm than good? Even though you might think you can handle the lack of sleep and added pressure, there are other more serious side effects that you can experience that should make you think twice about freaking yourself out before every exam.
We spoke to Dr. Kenford Nedd, president of the International Stress Control Centre, about the negative effects that stress can have on our body. Think another stressful cramming session will be worth it? Think again.
1. Jaw problems
You may not be aware of it, but stress could be causing you to grind your teeth at night.
Rachel Lytle, former HC Campus Correspondent for Penn State University, spent five amazing months studying abroad in Spain, only to return home to realize that the stress of being out of her comfort zone had caused damage to her teeth.
“When I got home that summer, I went to the dentist for a routine check-up and they told me that I have been grinding [and] clenching my teeth in my sleep. I had no idea I did this, but the proof on my teeth doesn’t lie.”
While Rachel now wears a night guard when she sleeps, Alyse Schember from California Polytechnic State University takes ibuprofen to relieve the pain of grinding her teeth.
“When I’m under the most stress I grind my teeth at night while I sleep, I can’t help it. My jaw will be sore all day from grinding my teeth at night,” says Alyse. “Also, clenching my jaw when I’m stressed leaves it sore for days too. Sometimes it’s so painful that I can’t focus on anything else,” she says of what her doctor diagnosed as Temporomandibular Disorder.
“People at university experience different kinds of stressors,” says Dr. Nedd, who also does seminars on how to control and eliminate exam anxiety. He explains that one of the things that can happen as a result of stress is a message is sent to the pre-frontal lobe of the brain, which controls the jaw muscles and causes them to become tight.
According to WebMD.com, severe effects of teeth grinding can include hearing loss, tooth loss and can even alter your facial shape.
So, what can you do to stop the grinding? If you want to get a night guard like Rachel, visit your dentist. Another alternative is stretching and massaging your jaw muscles, along with breathing exercises. “Basically develop or create the habit of [doing] a little exercise where the teeth are always slightly apart, tongue heavy against the base of the mouth and breathe slowly in through [your] nose and out through [your] mouth,” advises Dr. Nedd. “That will begin to relax the pterygoid muscles [the muscles in the jaw].”
Stress can trigger skin problems, such as acne, psoriasis, eczema and hives, and the stress of having these skin problems flare up can cause them to become even worse!
What causes these skin problems is the secretion of cortisol, according to Dr. Nedd. Cortisol is also known as “the stress hormone” because its secretion is triggered by stress. Cortisol will cause a decrease in the quality of cytokines (the instrument or agent of the immune system). In turn, this can disrupt your immune system. “You get an inflammation that happens in areas where the inherent weakness is within the person,” according to Dr. Nedd.
You also could experience breakouts if you snack on greasy foods or let up on your skin-cleansing regimen during midterms and finals season. So, be mindful of what you’re eating and take the few minutes to wash your face and apply your usual creams when you find yourself stressed out.
3. Bad headaches and muscle pains
Rebecca Gibson, a recent grad of the University of Oregon, gets tension headaches, along with knots in her neck and shoulders. What started in freshman year went on for two years straight.
“I went to every doctor and tried every medication and even got a cortisone shot into my neck. The next step the doctors wanted to take was to cauterize [burn] my nerves so that I just wouldn't be able to feel the pain,” says Rebecca. Deciding against the doctor’s suggestion, she looked into eastern medicine and found that acupuncture, massage and physical therapy helps to stretch her back and neck.
Students are predisposed to tension headaches and muscle pains in the neck and shoulders. Dr. Nedd explains: “People who use a forward position all the time… are likely to get symptoms in that area because the head is bent down and you get stressed and you tense those muscles. And because the muscles might impinge on nerves that go toward the scalp, you get headaches.”
He suggests being aware of your posture while studying and changing your position about every twenty minutes by doing things such as moving your neck or rolling your shoulders. Tense your muscles first, and then release them in order to get them to relax.
4. Digestion problems
Believe it or not, stress can also affect your digestion. Problems such as diarrhea, acid reflux, heartburn, cramps and constipation can arise as a result of too much stress.
“If I go on a first date, without fail, I’ll have stomach problems and nausea,” Jessica*, a collegiette at Johns Hopkins University, says. “I was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome [IBS], which is exacerbated by stress. Eventually I got my anxiety treated by seeing a psychiatrist and these stress-induced stomach issues happened less often and were less severe.”
Carlie*, a recent University of Michigan grad, who also deals with IBS, experiences many digestion problems as a result of stress, such as constipation, heartburn, gas and cramps. “I've been dealing with uncomfortable and embarrassing chronic stomach problems since October of 2011 and I battle with it every day. I’ve learned to tolerate the constant discomfort and am starting to notice that certain foods and drinks like coffee make the problem worse.”
Dr. Nedd explains that one of the causes of disrupted digestion could be that you’re eating too fast. “When you’re stressed you eat very, very fast, so the stressor actually causes constriction in that area [and] you get the inability to digest.”
He suggests being conscious of how fast you are eating and attempting to slow down. Although many collegiettes snack on the go because of their busy schedule, Dr. Nedd suggests sitting down to eat and taking your time. “In between each mouthful, take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth.”
5. Concentration or memory problems
When you cram and pull an all-nighter, showing up to take that exam with a lack of sleep will stress you out more and work to your disadvantage. In fact, insufficient sleep can have the opposite effect that you want from studying late: concentration or memory problems.
This is because stress decreases neurogenesis, a process during which the connection between brain cells is constantly being renewed.
“[When you’re stressed] the hypothalamus and other parts of the brain that control memory… get impulses that slow them down and that causes memory problems,” says Dr. Nedd. “We know for sure that stress has a specific effect on those parts of the brain.”
He shares a quick exercise that he learned from another doctor: Lift your head up and nod three times, as if in agreement. “This will open the blood vessel at the base of the brain and you will get more blood [flowing].”
Also, if you are preparing for a big exam, make sleep a priority.
6. Irregular periods
In addition to all of her other stress-related symptoms, Carlie also experiences irregular periods. “It sucks! I’ve been two weeks late before and usually it is so heavy, it goes through my clothes.”
This happens because when a stressor hits the biological system, an impulse will go to the hypothalamus, which sends a message to the pituitary gland (the gland that controls the ovaries). “[This] can cause irregularity in menses and can cause bleeding and pain and contractions in that area.”
7. Low sex drive
Not only can stress affect your schoolwork, it can also affect your enjoyment in the bedroom.
“When I'm really stressed I don't have a sex drive. I can't finish during sex because my body won't relax under stress,” says Olivia* from California Polytechnic State University.
Just like with irregular periods, a message goes to the pituitary gland, which controls the ovaries. “The ovaries disrupt the normal flow and regularity of estrogen and that interferes with the normal function,” says Dr. Nedd. “And add to that the fact that most [female] students who are sexually active are usually on the pill and that compacts the situation.”
So, how can you stop stressing?
With all these scary side effects, you’re probably wondering how you can ensure that you keep your stress in check. Try the following stress-reducing tips whenever you feel the work or pressure piling up.
- Deep breathing - For those collegiettes that don’t have time for a yoga class or full-on mediation sesh, Dr. Nedd suggests practicing deep breathing techniques to decrease cortisol levels and instantly calm down. Breathe in deeply through your nose and out through your mouth a few times while relaxing your body. Taking deep breaths right before an exam starts can help you chill out and focus!
- Positive thinking - By visualizing ourselves facing stressful situations [such as an exam] but with positive outcomes (and doing breathing exercises mentioned above), Dr. Nedd says, we can train ourselves to become experts at managing stress.
- Exercise and eat healthy - Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by doing things like exercising (which can release endorphins), cutting out unhealthy foods that trigger anxiety (like caffeine), and eating foods with antioxidants can reduce your stress levels. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins like chicken, fish, or tofu are great options to reach for.
- Laugh - Watch a funny TV show or movie, or hang out with the friends you know you can count on to get a laugh out of you. Research shows that even just expecting to laugh can drop your cortisol levels and decrease stress!
If you consistently experience any of the mentioned side effects, make an appointment with your doctor to see if there is anything else you can do.
Take care of yourself and don’t take your health for granted because sometimes the negative effects are just not worth the additional stress they will add.
*Names have been changed.