Stress is a situation that triggers a particular biological response. When you perceive a threat or a major challenge, chemicals and hormones surge throughout your body.
One of these hormones is adrenaline, known as epinephrine or the fight-or-flight hormone.
In rapid fashion, adrenaline works to:
- increase your heartbeat and breathing rate
- make it easier for your muscles to use glucose
- contract blood vessels so blood is directed to the muscles
- stimulate perspiration(sweat)
- inhibit insulin production
While this is helpful in the moment, frequent adrenaline surges can lead to:
- damaged blood vessels
- high blood pressure, or hypertension
- higher risk of heart attack and stroke
- weight gain
Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response in order to fight the stressors or run away from it. Typically, after the response occurs, your body should relax.
Is all stress bad?
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It is what helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors survive and help them keep their wits about them amid chaos. It’s important in today’s world as it could be helpful when it comes to meeting a tight deadline. Your wedding day, for example, may be considered a good form of stress.
We all feel stressed at times, but what one person finds stressful may be very different from what another finds stressful. Public speaking is a typical example. Some love the thrill while others become paralysed at the thought of it.
On the other hand, severe, frequent, or prolonged stress can be mentally and physically harmful. Life being what it is, it’s not possible to eliminate stress completely. Stress is common, but we can learn to avoid it when possible and manage it when it’s unavoidable.
Cortisol is another important stress hormone.
Stress and Cortisol
Cortisol plays an essential role in stressful situations. Among its functions are:
- raising the amount of glucose in your bloodstream
- helping the brain use glucose more effectively
- raising the accessibility of substances that help with tissue repair
- restraining functions that are nonessential in a life-threatening situation
- altering immune system response
- dampening the reproductive system and growth process
- affecting parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, and mood
All these help you deal more effectively with a high-stress situation. It’s a normal process and crucial to human survival.
But if your cortisol levels stay high for too long, it has a negative impact on your health. It can contribute to:
- weight gain
- high blood pressure
- sleep problems
- lack of energy
- type 2 diabetes
- mental cloudiness (brain fog) and memory problems
- a weakened immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to infections
It can also have a negative impact on your mood.
Causes of stress
Some typical causes of acute or chronic stress include, living with chronic illness, surviving a life-threatening accident or illness, and being the victim of a crime
Family related stressors such as an abusive relationship, an unhappy marriage, prolonged divorce proceedings, child custody issues, caregiving for a loved one with a chronic illness like dementia, living in poverty or being homeless, having little work-life balance, working long hours, or having a job you hate are other potential causes.
Whatever the cause, the effect on the body can be serious if left unmanaged.
Symptoms of Stress
Just as we have different things that stress us out, our symptoms can also be different.
Although you’re unlikely to have them all, here are some things you may experience if you’re under stress:
- chronic pain
- insomnia and other sleep problems
- lower sex drive
- digestive problems
- eating too much or too little
- difficulty concentrating and making decisions
- You might feel overwhelmed, irritable, or fearful.
The goal of stress management isn’t to get rid of it completely. It is not only impossible, but as we mentioned, stress can be good in some situations.
In order to manage your stress, first you have to identify the things that cause you stress — or your triggers. Figure out which of these things can be avoided. Then, find ways to cope with those negative stressors that can’t be avoided.
Over time, managing your stress levels may help lower your risk for stress-related diseases. And it’ll help you feel better on a daily basis, too.
Here are some basic ways to start managing stress:
- maintain a healthy diet
- aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night
- exercise regularly
- minimize your consumption of caffeine and alcohol
- stay socially connected so you can get and give support
- make time for rest and relaxation, or self-care
- learn meditation techniques such as deep breathing
If you can’t manage your stress, or if it’s accompanied by anxiety or depression, see your doctor right away. These conditions can be managed with treatment, as long as you seek help. You might also consider consulting with a therapist or other mental health professional.