The Stress Equation

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

15 October 2017

Semester week: 6

Breakdown Counter: 0

Stress-Level: Medium-Low.



The last 6 weeks have been by far the most demanding, exhausting, character-changing weeks of my life. I’m sure my fellow students can relate to how hard it is to juggle:

-Hard courses.


-Personal projects.


-Healthy eating.




But here’s the thing: You CAN do it all stress free. Well, will a little stress. Healthy stress.

The other night as I was getting ready for bed I made an interesting realization:

I hadn’t had my bi-annual stress-induced breakdown yet!

It seemed weird, since I’m being pushed harder than ever, shouldn’t I be feeling more stressed? It seems like a natural equation…


Where W=workload, D=difficulty, T=time, S=stress.

Well, by this calculation, my stress levels would be through the roof! There must be more to it…

So, I started searching for stress sinks to add to the equation. And, upon some introspection, I’ve identified some key habits and mindsets I’ve finally nailed down.

Again, I should preface by saying that these just things that I’ve been doing and work for me.

That being said; I’ll be calling on some known facts about biology, and I’ll put all sources down at the bottom. I’ll try to make it very clear what is my own opinion/experience, and what is well-researched science.

I’ve also got a midterm tomorrow, so this one’s gonna be a little brief…

Opinion: It’s harder to de-stress than to avoid stress to begin with

If you’ve ever made the mistake of telling an emotional person to “calm-down” or been told to “cheer-up”, you know how hard it is to get out of a mood once you’re in it.

I’m sure you all know how hard it can be to enjoy “relaxing”, when you’ve got midterms coming, assignments due, awards to apply for, and Gotham to protect.

Seriously though, in my experience, any time I’ve ever set aside to deliberately de-stress, have left me just-as, if not more stressed than before.

It’s like trying not to think of elephants. See, now you’re thinking about elephants.

Trying to purposefully de-stress is like trying not to think about stress.

So instead of that, why not try to not be stressed to begin with?

Thing is, we can’t always control how much gets thrown at us throughout the day.

We can avoid things like last-minute assignments by not procrastinating, but even then, there are unavoidable stresses that we can’t control.

But what we can control (to some extent) the preconditions that determine how we will react to it. 


It’s easy to forget that, even though we may no longer be angsty teenagers, our temperament is still largely affected by our hormones.

And while expressions like: “I get grumpy when I’m hungry” are common, it’s easy to forget that what we’re really saying is:

“My blood glucose levels are low, so my pituitary gland, pancreas and adrenal glands are releasing hormones to facilitate glucose uptake. Irritability is coming as a side-effect of this hormonal response”

Of course you’d never say that, but the point is, our moods are directly impacted by our hormone levels.

So, how do we keep stress hormone levels low?



It’s well-known that the stress hormone cortisol is closely linked to our sleep patterns.

I found a particularly interesting study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research that I think is worth looking at.

It found that chronic burnout is associated with heightened somatic arousal and elevated salivary cortisol levels. In other words: people who had bad sleep also had high cortisol, and hated their jobs.

It’s interesting because “burnout” is often considered a psychological, “mindset” issue. If someone is feeling burnt out from work, we usually tell them to take a vacation. However, this study suggests that our physiology plays a role as well.

Another study in “Physiology & Behavior” found that a single night of restricted sleep significantly affected cortisol rhythms in women, lowering cortisol in the morning (when they should be the highest, to wake you up) and elevating in the afternoon/evening.

So basically, get some sleep. But you knew that already.

So let’s add sleep to the equation. Let sleep be denoted ‘Z’ we’ll just tack it to the back with a satisfying subtract.




If that header made you groan, this one’s for you. Sitting 8-12 hours a day, and never breaking a sweat is NOT NORMAL. Our bodies are made to move.

A sea sponge is mobile until it finds a suitable place to grow. Then, it loses all sensory neuron function, and becomes does nothing but exist.

Don’t be a sponge.

First off, exercise doesn’t decrease cortisol. It increases it.

So why the heck does it reduce stress?

The answer is that, unfortunately, stress is not exactly as simple as just cortisol levels like I made it seem in the last section.

Our bodies are complex, and stress has a multitude of factors, cortisol levels being just one of them…However, while it has been shown that intense physical exercise may keep cortisol levels lower throughout the rest of the day, a more compelling fact is this:

Physical activity increases production of “feel-good neurotransmitters”, who’s levels are low if you’re stressed.

It’s been shown to increase focus, energy levels and even treat acute symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Here’s my experience though:

The largest benefit I’ve had from exercise (regarding stress relief) is the effective inability to think about anything else.

Certain yoga classes (especially “stress-relief” classes) and traditional meditation tend to be too relaxed to have much effect on my current stress levels, as I mentioned before.

They leave a tendency for my mind to wander.


Intense, demanding exercise like high-intensity cardio, a tough Vinyasa flow class, or a weightlifting session FORCES my mind to shut down. Nothing exists except me and my current physical suffering.

The mental toughness that comes from getting through a VIGOROUS workout translates to everything else I do.

I could write an entire post on the benefits of exercise by itself, and if I were to make such a post, I would want to do it justice by having more time to write it… 

Adding exercise to the equation, now we have:

WD/T – (Z+E) = S

““If exercise could be purchased in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”  -Robert H. Butler.

People dedicate their lives to helping others reduce stress in any way possible, so this post could easily be an entire book. There are so many factors to stress that our equation is still immensely simplified.

The point of this post is just to outline the two things that I’ve seen impact my stress levels the most this semester.

You knew these already.

Sleep and exercise.

It’s always sleep and exercise.

And that’s my point exactly. We’re only as good as our bodies let us be.

Breathing tricks and petting dogs are step 20. Start at step 1. Sleep. Then step 2. Exercise.

Maybe you’ll find you don’t even need the last 18 steps.

As much as I enjoy writing into the void, I’d love to hear back! What helps you de-stress? Let me know in the comments!




Hunger Hormones:


Chronic burnout, somatic arousal and salivary cortisol levels:


Stress- and treatment-induced elevations of cortisol levels associated with impaired declarative memory in healthy adults


Exercise and circulating Cortisol levels: The intensity threshold effect



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