A stressful time of year for everyone, including your dog

We are quickly approaching the most stressful time of the semester — finals! Actually, I would argue that December is the most stressful time of the entire year. On top of studying for exams and writing those last papers, there is the added anxiety of holiday shopping, baking and parties. As Winnipeggers, we manage to do this all in minus 30 degree weather — impressive!

Stress is the nervous system’s way of protecting you when it feels threatened. By sending out a whole bunch of hormones, your body can help save your life in an emergency or merely assist you in staying alert and focused during other, less serious situations. These hormones get your body ready for action by slowing digestion, tightening muscles, quickening breath, sharpening senses and increasing heart rate and blood pressure. All of these responses contribute to the burst of strength and energy that is given to the body. While the body is designed to return to normal functioning when the perceived threat is gone, this doesn’t happen during times of chronic stress. Chronic stress manifests itself in physical symptoms and disrupts nearly every system in your body. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 90 per cent of doctor visits are for symptoms that are at least partially stress-related.

As the exposure to chronic stress continues, mild effects progressively transform into more serious health problems. Usually, the body’s response begins as fatigue, aches and pains or as emotional disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression and insomnia. Stress has, at least partially, been connected to ulcers, colitis (inflammation of the colon), irritable bowel syndrome, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), diabetes and cancer.

Sorry to all you female readers, but it looks like women’s bodies have a few additional responses to stress. Women who experience the absence of menstruation or who have abnormal bleeding are usually under a great deal of stress. Furthermore, stress often causes hormonal imbalances, which increase the symptoms of fibroid tumors and endometriosis, both conditions associated with uterus complications. All of these bodily responses can lead to various sexual dysfunctions and infertility. Heart disease, the number one killer of Canadian women, is also highly dependent on a stressful lifestyle. High blood pressure, heart palpitations and strokes are all cardiovascular conditions that can be partially attributed to stress.

Maybe you’re reading this, thinking: “I’m in my twenties, do I really need to be worrying about infertility and my apparently failing heart?” While the answer is “Yes!” I know that reply isn’t going to convince you to de-stress your life. So, I’m appealing to your shallow and selfish side with these next two responses.

First of all, stress can affect your outward appearance. Dermatological problems such as rashes and eczema can be caused by stress — not exactly a turn on for that cute guy or gal sitting next to you in class. Stress can also speed up the aging process (such as hair loss) and contributes to obesity. If that still hasn’t convinced you, what about the fact that stress affects the immune system? Lowered immune responses cause more colds and infections. It seems like a vicious cycle, doesn’t it? You become stressed out about all the studying you have to do so you get a cold, which means that you can’t study as well for your exam so you do poorly, and then get stressed out again because you can’t get into your chosen faculty, etc.. While I’m being a tad dramatic, you get the picture — the last thing you need before finals is a running nose and scratchy throat. Do you really want to be that kid in the exam room? You know the one I mean — sniffling every few seconds and coughing so hard you think they may break a rib!

Some people thrive on stress — apparently it helps them perform well under pressure. Personally, I’ve always resorted to breathing into a paper bag or curling up in fetal position. While it can be helpful in small doses, it is important to remember that at a certain point, stress actually results in some adverse consequences to your health. The aim of this article is not to make you stress out about being stressed out — that would just be counterproductive! No, the intention is to make you think about what stresses you have in your life and how you can manage these stresses better. Sometimes you are thrown stressful situations that you can’t control. However, you can always control the way you respond to them. Go to a yoga class, have a bubble bath or pet your dog — apparently they get stressed during this time of year too — just make sure to spend some relaxing “you time” during this holiday season!