The Let-Down effect: when the pressure is finally off, but sickness kicks in

It is only one more week until the exam period is officially over. You might already have finished, or you might still be spending day after day in the university library, desperately trying to acquire just sufficient information to pass IO1 or trying to finish five MRP papers in one day. Besides exams, you might feel pressure from work, stressful situations with family and friends, or any other circumstances that have launched you into an intense period of stress. You might feel a little tired or anxious during this period but you know that when you are finally done with it, you will be able to sleep, catch up with friends, and relax again. But will you, actually? In comes the Let-Down effect: illness, flare-ups of chronic conditions and pains, digestive problems and skin conditions. Not during a stressful period, but after.

Why does this Let-Down effect occur?

So first, let’s examine what happens to our body while we are under stress. During acute stress, our bodies release various chemicals, of which three are most relevant. These are glucocorticoids like cortisol, catecholamines like epinephrine, and adrenaline. Specifically, glucocorticoids can reactivate a latent virus, meaning that a virus that was previously suppressed in our body suddenly becomes active again and spreads through our body. But because of other chemicals that our body produces during a stressful period, such as cortisol, our immune system is triggered at the same time to scale up protection, as some sort of ‘fight-or-flight’ response. This means that while we are actually getting sick, our body goes into a defence mode during stressful periods, preventing us from experiencing these symptoms.

What happens next?

Then, when stress goes away and our cortisol- and other chemical levels turn back to normal, the potential flair-ups and illnesses that were previously suppressed, reappear. While you were expecting to feel relieved, happy, and generally much better after your exam, you could actually fall sick. Besides physical conditions, this could also occur in more general feelings of emptiness, dissatisfaction or unhappiness, which could be the result of a decrease in dopamine levels. This fall in dopamine levels could result in an (unconscious) desire to raise these levels once again, possibly through binge eating or even substance abuse. Thus, a serious setback, and very much in contradiction to what we had expected from our after-stress period.

What can we do about it?

The next question of course is, can we do anything to prevent this Let-Down effect from affecting us? The best way for us to do this starts in our stressful period. Namely, if we prevent our body from activating its ‘fight-or-flight’ mode in the first place, we will also not experience the negative effects of its release. Therefore, we should accustom ourselves to taking regular moments of me-time, whether done by working out, meditation, getting a good night of sleep, or going for a walk with a friend. We should pay attention to our bodies in order to recognize when we are under stress, and take a moment to unwind. Even when we only have a minute, taking a few deep breaths may already be effective.

If, however, it is too late for this pre-emptive approach, and you have been under constant pressure but are almost at the end of the tunnel, you could try to lessen the intensity of the Let-Down effect. In this case, it is crucial to give your body the opportunity to destress rather gradually. The basic idea here is that instead of letting go all stress at once, you keep some level of mental or physical stress in your life to give your body time to adjust. You might now think: “why would I want to still have some stress in my life, while I also could have none?” Although this thought is very natural, stress in this case does not necessarily have to be of the same kind. By exercising intensively, working a little, engaging in a hobby or mental exercise such as playing games or making a crossword puzzle, we can also prevent our body from experiencing a sudden fall in stress chemicals, thus triggering a negative reaction.

Although we are naturally all looking forward to the end of exam season, or any other instigator of stress in our lives, we should therefore be aware of this Let-Down effect. Remind yourself to take some time for yourself once in a while, especially during a stressful period such as the IRIO exam-time, and allow yourself to rewind. If this is already too late, and you feel like stress levels are already through the roof, give your body some time to adjust: you would not want to suddenly hit the brakes while you are driving on the highway either. Then, all is fine, and we have something on the horizon to look forward to after finishing this third block!

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