by Lamis Abdelaziz


For university students navigating the challenges of academia, the concept of stress is all too familiar. From looming deadlines and heavy course loads to the pressures of balancing studies with social and personal commitments, stress permeates every aspect of university life. As students strive to excel in their academic pursuits, they often find themselves grappling with the physiological and psychological toll of stress. However, as terrible as stress seems to be, it can be helpful sometimes.

What is Stress?

Stress can be defined as the body’s physiological response to any demand or threat, whether real or perceived, that requires adaptation or coping. It occurs when we perceive situations as overwhelming or beyond our control, which encompasses the pressure of meeting deadlines to the emotional strain of personal relationships (Mental Health Foundation). This triggers our body’s fight or flight response, the physiological reaction that prepares us to confront or escape imminent danger, causing us to release our stress hormones, which help us respond swiftly to perceived threats (Mental Health Foundation). These hormones can lead to heightened alertness, increased muscle readiness, and elevated blood pressure (Felman 2023). While the precise mechanisms remain uncertain, various factors such as genetics, upbringing, personality traits, and socio-economic status play significant roles in shaping our perception of and responses to stress (Mental Health Foundation). At its core, stress represents a state of imbalance between the demands placed on an individual and their ability to cope with those demands.

There are two primary types of stress: acute and chronic stress. Acute stress, commonly known as short-term stress, typically arises from recent events or imminent challenges (Felman 2023). Examples include stress over an argument or impending deadline, which diminish once resolved (Felman 2023). Chronic stress, on the other hand, is long-term and often results from ongoing or recurring stressors, such as financial difficulties or persistent work-related pressures.

(Felman 2023). It develops over an extended period and can be more harmful. Chronic stress is characterized by a prolonged inability to find relief from stressors, leading to disruptions in various bodily systems such as cardiovascular, respiratory, and immune function which can become dangerous (Felman 2023). 

Short-Term Stress and Its Physiological Effects

During acute stress, the body’s autonomic nervous system activates, leading to heightened levels of cortisol and adrenaline, which increase heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. This prepares the body for fight or flight by redirecting blood flow to large muscle groups. Unlike chronic stress, acute stress is short-lived and easily managed, with swift recovery after the stressor subsides. Once the stressor dissipates, the body’s stress response quickly subsides, allowing for swift recovery. In contrast, chronic stress leads to sustained elevation of stress hormones and persistent activation of stress systems, contributing to long-term health issues and impaired well-being. (Scott 2023)

Simple relaxation techniques such as mediation or simple exercise can effectively alleviate acute stress, underscoring its manageable nature. Relaxation techniques, while effective for managing acute stress, may not be as effective for chronic stress due to the persistent activation of stress systems and physiological changes associated with chronic stress. In chronic stress, prolonged exposure to elevated stress hormones can lead to dysregulation of the body’s stress response, making it more challenging to achieve relaxation and recovery. Additionally, chronic stress can contribute to structural and functional changes in the brain and body, making it harder to reverse the negative effects through relaxation alone. (Scott 2023)

The Benefits of Short-Term Stress

While stress is often perceived as negative, short-term stress can have beneficial effects under certain circumstances. While chronic stress poses significant health risks, acute stress, when experienced in moderation, can be beneficial. It actually plays a vital role in optimizing cognitive function, sharpening our focus and attention and increasing motivation and productivity (Sanders 2013). 

Research conducted by Daniela Kaufer and Elizabeth Kirby at the University of California, Berkeley, sheds light on the distinction between acute and chronic stress, highlighting the cognitive benefits of short-lived stressful events. Acute stress, characterized by brief and intense periods of pressure, stimulates the proliferation of new nerve cells in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus, a region critical for memory formation. This phenomenon primes the brain for improved performance on cognitive tasks, enhancing alertness and adaptive behavior. Moreover, acute stress triggers the release of fibroblast growth factor 2 (FGF2),, by astrocytes, previously considered support cells in the brain but now recognized for their pivotal role in neural regulation. (Sanders 2013)

Kirby’s studies found that rats that were subjected to acute stress had a twofold increase in new brain cell production, leading to enhanced memory performance two weeks post-stress (Sanders 2013). . The findings suggest that acute stress fosters resilience and adaptability, equipping individuals with the cognitive resources to navigate challenging environments effectively (Sanders 2013). Animal studies, like Kirby’s research on rats, offer valuable insights into basic biological mechanisms and behaviours that are relevant to humans due to similarities in brain structure and function across mammalian species. While caution is needed in directly translating findings to humans, such studies provide preliminary evidence and hypotheses that can inform our understanding of human responses to stress and cognitive function. 

So while stress often feels like the villain, it turns out it might just be the unexpected hero we need. Short-term stress is a shot of adrenaline for the brain that boosts our focus, motivation, and even memory, according to research. Yes, stress might be the unwelcome guest at life’s party, but it’s also the unexpected life coach pushing us to new heights. So next time you’re knee-deep in deadlines or tangled in to-do lists, remember: stress isn’t always the enemy. It might just be the sidekick you never knew you had, helping you conquer the challenges of university life and beyond. So strap on your stress capes, folks, and let’s embrace the chaos!

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