Dr. Michele Moscicki

Changing perceptions of stress

February 21, 2019 | Science
Your professor calls you up to the front of the room. It’s your turn to present your work. Your mouth is dry. Your palms sweat. Your hands shake. And the eyes of your classmates are all on you. Watching you. Judging you. What were you even supposed to be talking about?

In Dr. Michele Moscicki’s special topic course on stress, students love to point out the irony of having to give oral presentations. To which she reminds them that having a stress response about presenting is a good thing.

“Your stress response has helped you stay alive in the first place,” says the assistant professor in psychology. “If you activate it in the way that it evolved to be activated, which is ‘there’s an emergency right now and I have to deal with it,’ then that response gives your body what it needs to deal with an emergency.”

When you think of an oral presentation — or a final exam, or a job interview — as an emergency, your stress response can make your body respond as such.

“The problem now in our modern-day lives is we activate this really heavy duty emergency system all the time for things that aren’t life-or-death situations, like a deadline coming up or a disagreement with your spouse,” says Michele. “These aren’t literal survival threats. That’s why this stress response becomes negative and contributes to chronic disease and other problems.”

So Michele tries to get her students to work on their cognition about what’s stressing them out. She says it’s common for people to catastrophize. But she wants you to step back and really consider the worst possible outcome of the situation. It might not be as bad as you initially imagine.

Changing your perception of what’s happening in your body shuts down that spiral of ‘there must be something wrong.’
—Dr. Michele Moscicki

When your stress response is triggered and your body begins to react, your brain receives signals that there must be an emergency, which exacerbates these negative feelings. “You get into a spiral of being stressed out by your own stress response.”

Michele gets her students to research and discuss coping mechanisms, which many of her past students continue to use.

“Changing your perception of what’s happening in your body shuts down that spiral of ‘there must be something wrong and I must not be able to handle it,’” she says. “It puts you in the mindset that your body is doing what it’s supposed to do to help you rise to the challenge and be your best.”

The course is available to 400-level psychology students, but Michele believes everyone would find value in a lesson on stress.

“You get formal instruction in reading and in writing and in all different kinds of stuff,” she says, “but in managing stress, which is so fundamental to everyone’s experience, no one sits you down and tells you ways of dealing with it.”

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