Home CommentaryStudent Life Analyzing stress levels – it’s all in the heart

Analyzing stress levels – it’s all in the heart

by Sara Baron-Goodman October 14, 2014
Analyzing stress levels – it’s all in the heart

Study by Concordia prof says your heart rate reveals your risk for chronic stress

Stress – this is a condition that is no stranger to students, especially as they climb the rungs of higher education.

While some students tackle deadlines and exam season with a come-what-may attitude, these same events can be triggers of extreme distress for others. So, why is it that some of us are so much more susceptible to stress than others? Concordia psychology professor, Jean-Philipe Gouin, holds the answers in his most recent study.

The study, published in the latest issue of the journal Stress, details the findings of how students’ heart rates play into their stress levels.

Gouin, along with colleagues Sonya Deschênes and Michel Dugas, measured the respiratory sinus arrhythmias (RSA), or in layman’s terms, heart rates, of a group of 76 undergraduate students during periods of high and low stress in their university semester (i.e. beginning of the semester vs. exam time). The results indicate subjects’ comparative levels of distress during these times and explore how one’s resting heart rate plays into the stress they may experience later.

“What we’re looking at [with the RSA measurements] is very high rapid fluctuations in the heartbeat,” Gouin said. “For most people, there’s a change in heart rate associated with breathing. When you expire it slows down for a few seconds, and when you inspire, it goes back up. The measure of this heart rate variability is the measure of the strength of your parasympathetic system.”

The parasympathetic system is responsible for the rest-and-digest phase which allows your body to maintain a calm state and replenish its energy, explained Gouin.

“Lets say you’re walking in the street and you see someone who is armed and want to run away, you want your sympathetic system — responsible for fight or flight responses — to be activated, and your heart rate variability to be quite small,” Gouin said. “You want your heart rate to be quite elevated so you can run away the way you need to. If your body has the same reaction when you’re worrying about something, when you show this withdrawal of the parasympathetic system, then you’re much more at risk [of experiencing elevated stress].”

The results of the study indicate that students who have a more variable heart rate during times of low stress are in fact less prone to experiencing acute distress during periods of high stress. Conversely, students whose heart rate was more regulated during times of low stress were more likely to be more stressed during a period of intensity.

With the information gleaned from this study, health care professionals will be able to better predict who might be at higher risk for chronic stress, allowing for preventative measures to be taken.

As for tricks to beat stress? Gouin said the best idea is just to get lots of sleep — easier said than done, I know — and try to keep up a healthy diet. A healthier body will always deal with stress better than a sleep-deprived, sugar-filled one will.

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