Casey Brown, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgetown University, discussed the biology of stress and anxiety-management techniques at an event on Oct. 24 titled “Stress and Emotional Regulation in College Students.”
The event was hosted by Active Minds, an undergraduate club dedicated to destigmatizing mental health issues.
During the event, Brown said from a biological standpoint, stress responses begin when the body faces a perceived threat.
“When you are faced with something in your environment that is threatening in any way, it leads to a physiological cascade within your body,” Brown said at the event.
This cascade — a series of chemical reactions that amplifies an external signal — in the body, begins in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus.
Brown said the hypothalamus, a region of the brain that produces signals that affect heart rate, body temperature and mood, controls two important stress pathways: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adrenal-medullary (SAM) pathway.
Brown said the HPA axis ends with the release of cortisol into the bloodstream, a hormone that signals stress and can have negative effects, such as inflammation and increased susceptibility to viruses, if abundant.
The SAM pathway connects the hypothalamus to the sympathetic nervous system, which facilitates the body’s physical response to dangerous or stressful situations. Brown said the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the physiological symptoms typically associated with stress and anxiety.
“If you’ve ever been public speaking and you notice your palms getting a little sweaty or you feel your heart start pounding really strongly, those are effects of your sympathetic nervous system responding to your environment,” Brown said.
She also noted that while some people experience stress through bodily sensations caused by the HPA axis or SAM pathway, for others stress is more cognitive, affecting mental processes and thoughts.
“Some people’s subjective feeling of stress is tightly aligned with what’s going on in their body, and for others it’s not so connected,” Brown said.
Brown also answered student questions about varying levels of stress among individuals and why some people stress over certain things while others do not.
Brown said the way individuals evaluate events in their environment — also known as appraisal — causes specific bodily and cognitive reactions in different people. For instance, a person who has negative thoughts about an exam might feel more bodily or cognitive responses to stress than a person who thinks positively about it.
“We can create threats in our own mind even when it might not exist in the environment or might not match someone else’s impression of the environment,” Brown said. “One skill that can be useful to change the way you appraise things in your environment is changing the thoughts you have about your environment.”
Brown also discussed a major source of stress for most college students: poor time management. She acknowledged that for many students, it can feel challenging to juggle all of the different aspects of college life, such as courses, extracurricular activities, sleep and exercise. At the event, Brown advised students to try to achieve a more accepting mindset to lower feelings of stress.
“Understanding that you’re in a phase of life where you have to make choices and accepting that there’s going to be this tension between all the different things you need to accomplish could help decrease stress,” Brown said.
One anti-procrastination tactic includes working in a space or with other people that foster productivity, Brown told students.
“Changing your context is an emotional regulation strategy known as situation selection which can be really good at reducing procrastination,” Brown said. “Another thing I’ve heard of is people using accountabili-buddies, where you find a friend who also likes to procrastinate and you guys hold each other accountable.”
Discussing one’s emotions with friends can also be beneficial at decreasing stress, according to Preeti Kota (COL ’24), a psychology major who organized the event.
“Everyone has different approaches to dealing with their stress, but Professor Brown said disclosing to friends and sharing what you’re going through can be really helpful because friends might have different solutions,” Kota told The Hoya.
By hosting the discussion-based event, Active Minds was able to foster a more accepting mindset about mental health and reduce the stress culture on campus, according to Nicholas Lohman (SFS ’24), an Active Minds member.
“I think it was a very interesting collaborative format and a very nice way of interacting with other students about a topic that’s usually somewhat taboo,” Lohman told The Hoya.