The Science of Stress

Many of us feel “stressed”. In fact, a lot of us are so familiar with it that we chalk it up as just another part of life. April is Stress Awareness Month – 30 days meant for us to become more conscious of our stress and more knowledgeable about the causes and cures.

What is "stress" and how does it work?

Stress is your body’s response to any real or perceived demand or threat. It’s when your body goes into “fight or flight” mode through the release of hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause your heart rate and blood pressure to rise, your muscles to tighten up, and your breath to accelerate, prepping you to flee the scene or fight if necessary.

When under stress, your body redirects energy to wherever is necessary for survival, focusing on the most dangerous threat first.

For example, ever feel nauseous during a stressful situation? That could be because blood is being pulled away from your digestive system, as your body decides to put more energy toward the threatening situation at hand than toward digesting your lunch.

Ever accidentally relieve yourself when scared? Hopefully not, but hey, it happens! And it happens because your body decides bladder control is less critical than the situation at hand.

Energy is most commonly redirected to the center of the body, because that’s where your vital organs are. That’s why stressful situations may make your legs feel wobbly, make your fingers go numb, or cause you to feel the blood rushing from your face or to feel lightheaded – the blood in these areas is rushing to your core instead.

Your body can’t differentiate between real and perceived threats, which is why you may experience symptoms such as a fast heart rate, sweating, or an uncomfortable feeling in the stomach when waking up from a nightmare or watching a scary movie.

Some stress is a good thing!

Biologically, stress is meant to help you survive and thrive. The release of cortisol and adrenaline gives you extra strength if you have to fight off an attacker or extra speed if you have to run. It heightens your alertness when you have to quickly slam on the brakes in your car. It causes you to spend your time preparing the day before a big job interview instead of watching TV.

Stress typically gets a bad rap, but it’s important to be reminded that, fundamentally and biologically, stress is a good thing and is critical for our survival. Where we run into issues is when our bodies are chronically under stress.

Chronic stress can be detrimental to nearly every system in the body.

The way your body reacts to very severe threats – going into fight or flight mode and redirecting energy to the most critical area – is the same way it reacts to smaller scale stresses such as a missed alarm, an argument with a family member, or a mistake made at work. Your body has an all-or-nothing response to stressors and doesn’t release more or less stress hormones based on the situation.

The more frequently that fight or flight mode is activated, the easier it is for your body to reactivate it the next time, and the longer the effects last. While adrenaline has a very short-lived effect, cortisol lasts a lot longer in the bloodstream, so if constant stressors are triggering your body to release cortisol, you’ll remain in that elevated state of stress.

As long as that cortisol is in the bloodstream, your body will focus its attention on systems most critical for survival and de-emphasize other systems. That’s why chronic stress is harmful – it can lead to chronic issues with the digestive, immune, and reproductive systems. It can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes due to repetitively elevated blood pressure and heart rate. It can accelerate the aging process as the metabolic functions in the body are constantly being compromised and overworked. Chronic stress can even rewire your brain and make you more susceptible to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

Take action to minimize stressors and the effects of stress in your life.

Chances are, you can think of someone you know that is dealing with the effects of chronic stress – perhaps someone in a stressful career or relationship that looks to be aging more quickly, is always getting sick, or deals with high blood pressure. The key is to minimize and better manage the stress triggers in our lives in order to mitigate the harmful long-term effects.

While some stress is inevitable in life, such as bills that need paid or the annual dentist appointment, it’s important to evaluate the sources of stress in your life and make changes where possible.

And since we know you can’t eliminate it all, later this month we’ll be sharing some great scientifically-backed ways to manage your stress. Stay tuned!

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