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Ask an Expert: Dr. Lesa Ellis Discusses Stress

Dr. Lesa Ellis

by Lily Wolfe (’18)

How Bad Is Stress for Your Health?

“Stress literally can be a killer. Learning to control it can be one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself,” said Dr. Lesa Ellis (’98), Westminster neuroscience professor and PhD in developmental psychology and cognitive and affective neuroscience. Dr. Ellis discusses the effects stress has on your body and long-term issues it can cause.

Why is it important to manage stress?

We all have stress and, in small doses, stress can help us adapt. The changes that occur in our brains and bodies during times of stress can help us cope with sudden challenges by temporarily giving us extra energy and alertness via a series of chemical signals. However, chronic daily stress—even small stressors—can over activate this system in very harmful ways. Further, especially for people in their teens and twenties, chronic activation of the stress system can cause our brains to become even more sensitive and reactive to stressful events over time, setting up a lifetime of high-stress reactivity.

What are some tips to manage your stress? 

Since stress involves both external events (stressors) and our brain’s reaction to those events, there are essentially two ways to manage it. First, you can take a good long look at the external factors in your life that are causing you stress and see if there are any factors that you can change or eliminate. Are you over-scheduled? Are you doing things that are meant to be fun activities but are actually just adding to your overly busy schedule? Try paring down the unnecessary activities in your life for a few weeks and see if removing some of that time pressure helps alleviate some stress. Does your commute stress you out? Try taking public transportation or, if possible, move closer to your place of employment or school. Spending significant amounts of time in traffic tends to be very stressful for most people, even if they don’t realize it. If you find that you are in relationships that cause you a great deal of stress, actively seek ways to improve those relationships through counseling, etc. Relationship stress can take a heavy toll and sometimes we don’t realize how much stress our relationships are causing us.

Of course, some types of stress are unavoidable or involve events or people we have no control over. In that case, it is important to work on changing the way our brains react to stress. We actually have the capacity to shut down our own stress reactivity by actively turning our internal focus away from distressing thoughts. This is very difficult to do and takes a great deal of control over our thought patterns. However, counseling can certainly help, as can activities such as meditation and other contemplative practices. Exercise also helps the brain to better handle stress reactivity. Some of my students have found that using the climbing wall in HWAC or taking a hike can help calm their brain. There are many pathways to changing the way your brain handles stress, but they all require action and a true desire to get stress under control. Worrying about your stress without taking action isn’t going to help the situation.

What are some long-term effects if you fail to handle stress?

The hormones released during stress reactivity can have very negative effects over time. These chemicals can damage the cells in our brain that are responsible for learning and memory. They can cause cardiovascular and digestive problems. They can even contribute to the onset and progression of cancer. Stress literally can be a killer, and learning to control it can be one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself.

In terms of mood management, how do you pull yourself out of a stump? 

Recently, I found myself feeling unusually overwhelmed, stressed, and generally unhappy. I even snapped at a student when she asked when I would have some papers graded, which is very unlike me. I felt terrible for the rest of the day as I realized I had let my own bad mood spill out of my mouth and infect my student. By the end of the day, I knew I needed to pull myself out of my funk.

First, I found the student and apologized before leaving campus for the day (setting things right in relationships always helps me feel better). When I got home, I spent a half hour sitting very quietly, watching the clouds and the sky, and simply breathing and trying to relax my body. Then, I spent some time reminding myself that the semester will end in four weeks—I can do anything for four weeks and do it with a smile on my face. Next, I looked at my calendar and rearranged a few things to make some of my days a little less hectic. Finally, I reminded myself that I am incredibly busy because I am one of the small percentage of people in the world who have a job I actually love that enriches my life in innumerable ways. Reminding myself of my own privilege and luck really does help me find some perspective.

Learn how to manage stress through mindfulness by reading the  Review article featuring Dr. Ellen Behrens.



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The Westminster Review is Westminster College’s bi-annual alumni magazine that is distributed to alumni and community members. Each issue aims to keep alumni updated on campus current events and highlights the accomplishments of current students, professors, and Westminster alum.