Almost all of us experience stress from time to time. It’s our body’s natural response to a change. However, even though it’s a natural response, stress is often associated in a negative light. In some ways, that association makes sense. When you hear people say “I’m stressed”, it usually means they are dealing with a tough situation and are tense or anxious about it.
Does it deserve the bad rap it gets? What is the real story behind stress?
Let’s take a closer look at stress so we can better understand the effect it has on our physical and mental well-being.
The term stress used in a biological setting is defined as a mental, physical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension.
The term was first coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye. He also discovered and documented that stress is “stressful” whether the situation is positive or negative. In order to distinguish between the two, Selye labeled positive stress as “eustress” and negative stress as “distress”.
Stress may also be defined as your body’s fight or flight system. When you feel threatened, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol. These two hormones are responsible for speeding up your heartbeat and pulse, tensing your muscles, raising your blood pressure, sharpening your senses, and quickening your breath.
Stress gets you ready to fight or flee the threatening situation. So in theory, stress should be good for you because it keeps you on your toes and ready for danger.
When our ancestors could fight against a predator like lions, their stress would be released. But in the office, during tense meetings, we can’t and don’t always let go of that stress. In the modern age, our body’s stress response is regularly triggered even though our life is not directly in danger. This prolonged stress is detrimental to health.
What Stress Does to Your Body
There are three major hormones involved with stress: epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.
When you hear, see, or feel a threat, your amygdala is the portion of the brain responsible for responding. The amygdala plays an important role in the processes of decision-making, memory, and emotional reactions. When the amygdala receives the signals, it triggers the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus controls the production of the stress hormones and releases them when danger is present. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the key hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response of the body. You may also know them as adrenaline and noradrenaline. They increase blood flow to muscles, cause the pupils to dilate, and increase blood sugar. In the brain, the two hormones work together to increase arousal and alertness.
Cortisol, the third hormone, works at the same time as the epinephrine and norepinephrine by telling the body to access more energy and use it efficiently. It does this by increasing blood sugar, suppressing the immune system, and aiding the metabolism of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
With these three hormones working hard, your body should be ready to fight off the danger. But that’s rarely what actually happens. Here’s a look into a few things that happen when these hormones are released.
When there is danger, these three hormones are the greatest tools your body gives you to fight back. In fact, these hormones can help you surpass the normal limits of your body. That’s what happens when you feel stress without anxiety; it’s one of the best ways stress can be helpful.
Stress can also strengthen the connection between neurons in your brain and improve cognitive function. This study on lab rats showed that “brief stressful events caused the stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells” which increased cognitive performance.
In short bursts, stress can be very beneficial. As the blood flows to your muscles and your brain, it can help you solve the problem at hand.
However, your body also needs to be able to come down from its heightened state. When we’re constantly causing our bodies to work extra hard, it can be detrimental to our health.
Yes, stress can make us productive and focused up to a point. According to the Yerkes-Dodson law, performance increases with physiological or mental arousal but only up to a certain point; after that point performance drops.
On top of decreasing productivity, stress also affects physical health.
Your body is getting ready to escape danger so muscles are tensing for a fight. When we’re feeling stressed all the time, there will be times where we don’t get to release the tension. With prolonged stress, neck and shoulder pain become prevalent and persistent.
Stress can also increase your chances of getting sick. Cortisol suppresses the immune system, telling the body that that energy needs to be used somewhere else. When you’re constantly stressed, your immune system isn’t getting the support it needs, making it easier to get sick and harder to get better.
Besides the common cold, stress has been linked to cardiovascular disease, certain skin diseases, and an increased risk of stroke.
Chronic stress can even affect your genes. In this study, researchers found that the overexposure to stress changed the way genes were activated in the immune cells and created an increased expression of genes that lead to inflammation, which can raise the risk for serious health conditions.
On top of the physiological effects of stress, your mood and behavior are also impacted. Stress influences eating behavior and appetite – whether it’s to eat less or overeat. Stress negatively affects your sleep, causing you to lose sleep which can cause a lot of other health problems. Plus, stress causes tensions in relationships – whether at work or at home. It’s easy to become emotional when you feel anxious.
When you’re constantly stressed out, you’re not living life to its full potential.
How to Manage Stress
It’s ok to feel stressed every so often, but it shouldn’t be detrimental to your physical and mental well-being. It’s important to manage your stress so that you can use it when you need to be focused and let go of it when it’s not important.
If you want to act proactively to stop stress, Spire is a great tool to help. It tracks your breath, noticing when your breath changes, and will give you a gentle notification when it senses that you might be stressed. After receiving the notification, you’ll get tips on how to decrease your stress levels by using your breath.
Meditation is a great tool for managing stress and anxiety too. Just a few minutes before your day begins can give you the resilience and peace of mind you need to tackle tough tasks. Give it a try with these meditation techniques or follow along with renowned meditation guru Deepak Chopra here.
Practicing mindfulness is another great method for manage stress. Mindfulness is a gentle way to bring your mind back into the present moment, instead of worrying about future or past events. Mindfulness-based stress reduction has been proven to be particularly powerful in reducing stress and anxiety. Try a few exercises and meditations for mindfulness-based stress reduction here.
Exercise is not only good for your overall health, but can be used as a way to reduce stress. Think of exercise as mindfulness in motion.
Lastly, if you’re feeling tense and anxious, laugh. Laughter is an easy way to release stress-busting endorphins quickly. A deep belly laugh can help you relax, decrease stress hormones, and increase creativity. So find a funny movie, read a humorous book, or tell silly stories with friends.
Stress is a part of life, but it shouldn’t consume all of your life. We will all run into stress eventually, so it’s important to deal with it in a healthy way. Let stress help you when you need it but make sure to let it go when it’s not necessary.