We’ve all been told that stress is bad for our bodies, but how many of us actually know why that’s the case? While ignorance may be bliss in certain cases, it’s beneficial for us to learn a little bit more about the impact of stress on our general health and well-being. Its effects might surprise you.
The Biology Behind Stress
Stress is part of our overall survival mechanism. It’s how we react to psychological or physical threats. In the presence of danger, regardless of whether it’s real or imagined, our nervous systems kick our bodies into defense mode, activating a stress response commonly referred to as the “fight-or-flight” reflex. The main goal of the stress response is to help us rise up to the challenges at hand. A normal stress response makes us sharper, quicker, and a lot more alert than usual. We sort of become superhuman, like Spider Man. But because we’re not faced with danger all of the time, a prolonged stress response can actually cause health issues.
Biological Effects of Stress on the Body
When we experience chronic stress or find ourselves in the presence of danger, our brains prep our key body systems for emergency action:
- The nervous and endocrine systems respond by flooding our bodies with stress hormones. Two of these hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, suppress our immune systems and speed up our heart rates.
- Our musculoskeletal systems force our muscles to contract. This is good if we want to outrun a bear, but it can trigger a tension headache or other types of physical discomfort.
- Our respiratory systems cause rapid breathing to ensure our muscles have enough oxygen to function as we escape. It can, however, lead to hyperventilation that could cause the onset of a panic attack.
- Our cardiovascular systems dilate our blood vessels, which in turn can lead to inflammation of the coronary arteries. In extreme cases, this could trigger a heart attack.
- Our gastrointestinal systems provoke food cravings for fatty or sugary foods. Although they temporarily boost our energy levels, they irritate our stomachs and bowels in the long run.
Because stress affects our minds, bodies and behaviors differently, our ability to tolerate prolonged stress or short bursts also varies. Stress and resiliency expert, Jenny C. Evans, explained how prolonged exposure to stress can rewire our brains, leaving us prone to anxiety and depression. She notes that it also negatively affects our memory, learning ability, and impulsive behavior. It’s important to state that the longer our bodies remain stressed, the harder it is to get them back to neutral – a state that science and medicine folk refer to as homeostasis.
What Can We Do To Prevent Stress from Wreaking Havoc on Our Bodies?
According to Melinda Smith and Robert Segal of HelpGuide.org, we can all practice the four A’s of stress management:
- Avoid unnecessary stress by identifying our triggers and keeping them at a distance.
- Alter our situations by trying to deal with problems as they come instead of internalizing them.
- Adapt to the stressors by reframing how we think about them.
- Accept what is beyond our control.
Of course, we can also try to cope with stress by meditating in a room full of adorable kittens. Nonetheless, seeking guidance from a licensed therapist is by far the most effective tool we have for dealing with stress and protecting our minds as well as our bodies from its harmful effects.