Stress is the body’s physical reaction to disturbing stimuli

Credit: Anna Boyle/ Credit: Anna Boyle/

At Carnegie Mellon, stress is a conversation starter. When we have a lot of exams and homework, we feel stressed. When we say you feel stressed, scientifically, what do we mean? Stress is a concept independent of time and age.

According to an article published in the Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, stress can be defined as “any situation which tends to disturb the equilibrium between a living organism and its environment.” It is primarily a physical response. The body switches to its evolutionary fight-or-flight mechanism in response to a physical stimuli by releasing hormones. These hormones, including primarily epinephrine (otherwise known as adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol, get the blood pumping and energy rushing.

There are three components of the fight-or-flight mechanism: fight (in which we feel agitated and aggressive towards others and any perceived threat), flight (in which we avoid the stressor), and freeze (in which we lock the energy from the perceived threat into our nervous system).
Here at college, our fight-or-flight response is not so much activated by malicious threats to our well-being, but by deadlines. When we are in “fight mode,” we can negatively affect relationships with our attitudes and words; in “flight mode,” we avoid dealing with the stress and let it escalate until it all becomes very unmanageable; in “freeze mode”, we tend to breathe shallowly, increasing the odds of a panic attack.

A little stress reminds us of the things we need to accomplish. But too much stress at once has detrimental effects to health. The Stress Management Society uses a bridge analogy when addressing stress: “When a bridge is carrying too much weight, it will eventually collapse. It is possible to see the warning signs before this happens, the bridge would bow, buckle and creak. The same principle can be applied to human beings, with excessive demands and challenges placed on our bridges. There may be early warning signs. However stress can creep up on some of us, resulting in an unexpected breakdown.”

The heart is one of the first organs to be affected by stress. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer, increasing every year, and the fact that stress has become more prevalent leads to a correlation between the two. In addition, stress causes a rise of blood pressure, leading to weaker arteries in the brain and a higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Increased stress is also a precipitating factor of various endocrine disorders, including hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease, diabetes mellitus, and obesity.

Stress changes a person cognitively, emotionally, and physically. Under stress, a person can have cognitive problems, including problems with memory, poorer judgement, indecision, self-doubt, and inability to concentrate. Emotionally, stress can lead to depression, anxiety, frustration, and panic. People physically have aches and pains, and are more likely to catch a cold. They may find it difficult to sleep or sleep too much, become more reliant on addictions to alcohol and drugs to relax, or become demotivated.

One of the most dangerous consequences of stress is feeling like things are out of your control and isolating yourself from others. In response to campus-wide concern regarding the stress students feel and how to address that, President Suresh announced that the Carnegie Mellon University Board of Trustees approved the creation of a new health and wellness center and significant increase of employment in the Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) office.