Stress. We hear the word nearly every day and probably say it just as often. Phrases such as, “I’m stressed” or “That was stressful,” fly off the tongue, but what do they really mean?
Stress, a physical reaction, results from stressors—changes in your environment or threats to your well-being. These demands can be short-term, often called acute stress, or long-term. They can result from outside influences, such as work or home life, or physical conditions, such as an illness or hunger. People often think of stress in terms of negative events, but happy times can also cause stress.
Did you know marriage ranks higher than losing a job or experiencing the death of a close friend on a widely used stress scale?
The Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory ranks common life events. The greater number of events on the list a person experiences in any given year, the greater that person’s risk of a stress-induced health breakdown. Significant life events require adaptability, resilience, and coping skills—even if they’re positive.
The body and mind are intricately linked, with mental stressors leading to physical reactions that over time tax the body.
When the brain experiences stress, it secretes steroids and stress hormones that jumpstart body systems. The heart rate increases, breathing becomes more rapid, and the immune system rallies to fend off threats, whether imagined or real.
Other neurotransmitters released, including adrenaline, give the body an energetic push to gear up for self-defense. Neurotransmitters also signal the brain to feel emotions such as fear. This fight-or-flight response can be helpful in times of immediate physical danger. In those cases, the body’s functioning returns to normal after the threat passes. However in the modern world, stress more frequently results from navigating office politics and family drama rather than confronting an angry black bear. These ongoing pressures result in a chronically stressed system on high alert for a black bear that never materializes.
Physical symptoms of stress range widely from person to person, but may include light-headedness, blushing, cold or sweaty extremities, indecision, weight gain or loss, and depression. A chronically stressed system can result in a host of health issues including high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, and heart disease.
Keep in mind that not all stress is bad. Some stress can actually be healthy, improving brain performance and keeping people alert.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that acute stress—like a work deadline—can result in new nerve cell formation in the brain that can enhance performance. Stress can mean adventure and excitement, and without it, life would get boring. The problem is finding the balance between good stress and bad stress. Unfortunately, much of that isn’t in any one person’s control.
Why do you think so many people experience stress?
Image by Francesco via Flickr