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Principles of Safe Stress

By Mike Norfolk, Features Contributor


About this time last year, I wrote an article titled “Practice Safe Stress: A Brief Guide to Deal with Midterms” in hopes of informing our community about the cognitive function of stress and why it has such a big impact on us. With Stress Less Day this past Wednesday, I felt it was a good time to revisit some of the principles I outlined in that article and to raise awareness about why we should prioritize our mental health.


Our brains react to stress through the sympathetic nervous system — the fight-or-flight response. When our senses detect a threat, they signal our amygdala and prefrontal cortex (PFC) to act. Our amygdala responds first by turning off “unnecessary” functions (i.e. the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory) and turning survival functions on. The hypothalamus, which controls body temperature, heart rate and appetite, prepares the body to fight or flee.


However, most of today’s stress inducers are not physical, and it’s pertinent we plan our responses rather than merely reacting on instinct to them. That’s where the prefrontal cortex comes in: for the PFC to function properly, it needs the body to be in a neutral state so it can use information from the hippocampus to create a solution to the problem. If you’ve ever been flustered under stress and then found a solution hours later, that’s because the PFC moves slower than the amygdala.


So, how can we apply this information to our lives? To speed up the PFC, we need to get our body to a neutral state, which begins with principle one.


Principle #1

Slow down your breathing. Controlling our breath is like pulling the UNO reverse card on the hypothalamus. It slows down our heart rate and brings our body back to homeostasis, allowing our brain to function properly. A practice I like to use is box breathing, which is a four-second inhale, four-second hold, four-second exhale and four-second hold; this can be repeated for two to five minutes. Once our body is in a neutral state, the PFC gets to work.


Principle #2

Clear your head. Now that the PFC is working, we’ve got an overload of solutions that need to get out before they induce anxiety. To get out of your head, get physical! Depending on the problem, I deal with it in different ways. One way is to write out every solution, feasible or not, and then “play chess” (if I do x, then y happens) in order to narrow down my options to the one that could work. Another way is to exercise. Whether it’s on a run at Delaware Park or hitting the weights in Palisano, I create new and immediate problems to distract myself with. These are just some of the things that work for me, and it’s important to learn the best way you can relax.


Principle #3

Make the decision to act. Nevermind doing what’s “right” or “wrong”: we must start where we stand and get to work! Production creates momentum and releases dopamine, which gives us the motivation to keep going. I create production in these situations by finishing something left undone. Messy room? Clean it. Boom, you just produced a clean room, inspiring you to check off the next box.


Principle #4

Plan ahead. We’ve all got things that need to be done urgently and things that are important to us. Writing out when we’ll get them done puts us at ease because we can see they will be done, they’re just not done right now. I create my schedules like a snowball, starting with easy tasks and working my way to the hard ones as my day goes on. Other people prefer to do the opposite — it’s a matter of preference.


Principle #5

Stay positive. Pouting, ruminating and whining doesn’t do us any good, and we all know it. I love the term “fake it until you make it,” because it actually helps me control my attitude by changing the way I interact with my surroundings. Find something to laugh about or something you can say is great, beautiful or spectacular. You’ll be shocked at how much better you feel with just a little optimism. Even when everything sucks, it’s still pretty extraordinary that absolutely everything sucks. You don’t just have problems, but great problems!


There’s strength in seeking help when we can’t do it alone and in times of stress you have to turn to your community. Throughout March, the National Society of Pershing Rifles and the Afro-American Society are running a clothing drive in the memory of David Bubb, who passed away in 2019. I asked Julia Vanaskie, a senior and close friend to David, to write a few words for this article:


“David Bubb was one of the friendliest people I knew. He was outgoing to the point where his enthusiasm would wear off on others. He was an ROTC Cadet here at Canisius, like myself, and excelled at it for the short time he was with us. He worked hard and always had a smiling face, even during our 6 a.m. morning workouts. Much like his personality, he had an infectious laugh that was able to cheer anyone up no matter what type of day they were having. However, like most that struggle with mental illness, David was able to mask his depression very well from those that cared about him. David lost his battle with depression on Dec. 20, 2019. There were no signs that I or his other friends saw that would have given us any idea that he needed help.”


If you’re interested in donating, there are boxes in every residence hall laundry room as well as at the entrance of the library, the ROTC office in Health Science and beneath the dining hall. If you have any questions about this article or how you can support the clothing drive, please email norfolkm@canisius.edu.

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