The Science of Starting Something New

By: Julia Paiva, SPECTRUM Writer

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Starting university can be nerve wracking. Whether it’s the first time you’re living on your own, trying to navigate Quercus, or figuring out how you’ll balance coursework while maintaining a social life, university comes with plenty of first-time situations. For many of us, new experiences are accompanied by both excitement, as well as nervousness. But why do we feel nervous when we logically know no danger is near?

Stress is broadly defined as either a real or imagined threat to internal homeostasis, or our personal safety. Any dangers in our evolutionary past were met with a ‘Fight or Flight’ autonomic nervous response. Even though in present-day Toronto we don’t typically have to deal with environmental or animal threats to our safety (except for the occasional fox spotted in UTSC’s valley), something as simple as an upcoming test can trigger physiological responses meant to maintain physiological integrity in unknown situations.

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the immediate response when we encounter a stressor, a potential ‘threat’. The sympathetic system promotes a rapid excitation of physiological responses- for instance, increased heart- rate in seconds. These physiological responses helped homo sapiens survive as a species in the past. Your hypothalamus sends signals to your kidneys to trigger the release of hormones such as adrenaline, aiding to send blood to the parts of your body that your body thinks will help get you out of the perceived danger. This includes sending blood away from deemed unnecessary areas such as your stomach for digestion, and towards more action driven areas like your heart and muscles. This causes blood vessels in the stomach to narrow, causing the characteristic ‘butterflies in the stomach’ nervous feeling. However, they can cause us annoyance now when they make us feel nauseous, sweat, and increase our heart rates when we know intuitively no ACTUAL life threatening danger is near.

The limbic system is part of our midbrain performs critical functions such as helping to maintain a balance- homeostasis- in our body. It also has an effect on the fight or flight response carried out by the autonomic nervous system, and effecting our endocrine system. The limbic regions not only regulate your stress response so we’re not in a constant state of panic, but they also work to tailor stress responses to past experiences and memories by working in conjunction with circuits responsible for memory and anticipated outcomes. So if you have one bad heart thumping experience during a presentation you gave in high school, just the thought of presenting to an even bigger crowd in university could be enough to make you sweat.

On the bright side, this physiological response associated with nervousness doesn’t last forever, as we all know. Parasympathetic action of the ANS is the reflex to this, waning the excitation of the sympathetic ‘Fight or Flight’ response, sometimes referred to the rest and digest response in contrast.

Starting something new can be both exciting and nerve wracking at times, even when we logically know there is no real ‘threat’ to our safety. But, with new situations comes new and exciting opportunities, and the chance to challenge ourselves while taking needed breaks and accepting help when necessary! If you are a new student to UTSC, especially a science student the following link below may help with any nerves related to core classes:

Physics Help Centre and Chem Aid Centre:

Health and Wellness at UTSC


Ulrich-Lai, Y. M., & Herman, J. P. (2009). Neural regulation of endocrine and autonomic stress responses. Nature Reviews Neuroscience10(6), 397.

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