The stress response system and the boundaries of healthy stress
The stress response system regulates itself. In case of threat, stress and anxiety, hormonal reactions bring about physical symptoms, such as restlessness, shaking, sweating, dizziness, stomach aches or headaches, insomnia, fainting, nausea and so on. After a while, hormone levels decline and the body returns to a resting state.
A healthy dose of stress and anxiety have an upper and a lower limit. As long as you stay within this so-called ‘window of tolerance’, you function at your best. Within this window, you are able to tolerate stress well, discuss with others, focus on your tasks and be creative.
When your stress and anxiety levels increase to the upper limit, your stress response system is activated and you are overwhelmed by intense reactions (fight, flight or freeze). You become overstimulated and react automatically. This can manifest itself in taking impulsive decisions or giving unrestrained criticism, for example. Mostly, these are reactions you hardly have any control over, and hence you don’t consciously choose to respond this way.
In challenging times, you can also reach the bottom level of your window of tolerance. In that case, you sort of freeze and you feel empty. You are paralysed by fear, transfixed, you snap shut or are completely blocked, for example for a presentation or whilst studying for a difficult exam.
It is therefore best to strive for an optimal level of stress. This search is a process of trial and error.
Students who experience too little tension are often bored and long for challenge, in contrast with students who are confronted with (excessively) high stress levels, who may experience feelings of anxiety and exhaustion. Sometimes, they try to find a solution in avoidance behaviour. Persistent stress can lead to fear of failure.