Stress is one of those familiar pests we’ve all encountered at one point or another. It can affect our work, social, family, and personal lives on a small or larger scale. On the negative side, stress can make us feel irritable, unproductive, discouraged, anxious, and physically ill. The truth about this ‘pest,’ however, is that it has benefits as well. In appropriate doses, stress can actually enhance motivation, focus, and productivity, and allow us to attend to important matters. The trouble arises when our stress levels reach an unmanageable state, causing our instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response to take full effect, and consequently hindering our rational thinking and problem solving capabilities.
We have decided to dedicate our next blog series to STRESS, a topic we can undoubtedly all relate to. This first post will offer an introduction to stress; what it is, and its physical effects on the body. Subsequent posts will cover the causes of stress, the negative effects of stress on physical and emotional health, our very best tips for effectively managing stress, and more. Be sure to visit our site weekly for this, and other great information to help you enhance your health and wellness.
What is Psychological Stress?
Stress can be defined in countless ways, but a definition many health professionals have agreed upon is the following; a state of mental or emotional strain resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. This ‘strain’ can come in many forms. It can arise from external demands and pressures, such as work or school deadlines, and high expectations from others, from adverse life circumstances, such as chronic illness, relationship difficulty, major life transitions and changes, or loss, or it can be self-imposed, resulting from perfectionism, and the high standards we may place on ourselves for various reasons. Our next post will delve further into the many causes of stress and our individual reactions to them, but for now, we will focus on what actually takes place in our bodies when we are stressed.
What Happens in Your Body When You Are Stressed
The body’s physiological response to stress is most interesting. When you perceive something as ‘stressful,’ concerning, worrisome, or threatening, your body reacts the only way it knows how to; by unfolding it’s instinctive ‘fight or flight’ response. Also known as the ‘stress response,’ this series of bodily events serves the very ancient evolutionary purpose of preparing our bodies for action in the event of physical danger; literally running from a saber tooth tiger, for example. As there is much literature about the fight or flight response available on the internet and elsewhere, you may already be familiar with it, which is a good thing. The more information we have on a given phenomenon, the better we can understand it, and the more we can do to help ourselves when faced with its adverse effects. You will find our succinct overview of the body’s stress response below.
Our nervous system consists of two distinct components; the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary actions such as respiration, heart beat, and blood pressure is further subdivided into two parts; the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. When we perceive a threat, our senses send a signal directly to our brain; the amygdala to be specific. This is the part of our brain that is responsible for emotional processing and our fear response. When the amygdala detects a threat, it’s next order of business is to alert the hypothalamus, another important area of the brain, which immobilizes the rest of the body for action by way of the autonomic nervous system.
The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for our fight or flight response. Once a distress signal has been interpreted by the hypothalamus, it signals the endocrine system trough the adrenal glands, which respond by releasing the hormone epinephrine, aka adrenaline, into the bloodstream. This surge of epinephrine brings about a number of characteristic events in the body; heart rate and blood pressure increase to move more blood into the major muscle groups, the bronchi expand to facilitate the flow of oxygen, body temperature rises, the pupils dilate to improve vision and focus, and non-essential systems such as digestion, sex drive, critical thinking, and immunity are shut down, as they are not needed in averting impeding threat. Further, the release of glucose from the body’s storage sites are released to provide emergency nutrients and energy to the blood stream. The next series of events involves what is known as the HPA axis consisting of the hypothalamus, the adrenal glands, and the pituitary glands. This is the system that works to sustain the stress response in the event of prolonged threat. At this stage, the adrenal glands receive a signal to produce the infamous stress hormone cortisol and keep it coming until the coast is clear. Essentially, the body is preparing itself to either fight or flee in the face of physical threat. This system may have served our ancestors well as they escaped the likes of wild animals and natural disasters, and it is still most helpful to us when faced with such physical danger or violence, but for what concerns psychological stress in our modern-day world, our stress response often hinders our capacity to manage and cope with difficult situations.
Prolonged Activation of the Stress Response
Once a threat is no longer perceived by the hypothalamus, and the sense of danger has passed, the parasympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system takes over to return the body to ‘homeostasis,’ or its baseline resting state. But what happens when the brain consistently perceives threat and is not afforded the chance to return to homeostasis? You get a prolonged stress response; the result; chronic psychological stress. Now, based on the physical phenomenon we’ve discussed in this post, you can imagine how taxing this sort of physiological reaction can be on your system if activated 24 hours a day for an extended period of time. It becomes exhausting for the body and mind having unfavorable effects on our physical and emotional health.
- Professional burnout
- Diminished cognitive functioning
- Hindered concentration and focus
- Forgetfulness and impaired memory
- Physical complaints such as: headaches, stomach aches, digestive trouble, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal illness, muscle tension, chest pain & more
- Diminished immune system function
- Difficulty with sleep
- Chronic fatigue
- Chronic pain
- Unhealthy eating patterns
- Misuse of drugs and alcohol
- Anxiety disorders and depression
If you feel you have been living in fight or flight mode for an extended period of time and worry about the damage it may cause to your physical health, there is no need to panic. While it can cause significant health concerns in the long term, the body and heart are resilient, and worrying about further illness will not help ease your highly stressful state. Instead of worrying, take this as an opportunity to reflect about the reasons you may be experiencing chronic stress, and start taking actions to manage and release it. We are always here to help and support you with this.
We hope this was helpful to you and encourage you to visit our page every week in July for more Stress-related posts. Next week we will explore some of the causes of chronic stress, and why some of us may have a higher vulnerability than others.
Have a great week!