In today’s fast-paced world, it’s difficult to maintain a sense of calm. Stress affects us every day, perhaps more than we realize, and it’s taking a toll on our health.
Scientific Definition of Stress
A common medical definition of stress is any physical, mental or emotional stimulus that the brain detects and reacts to by releasing these three powerful hormones: Adrenaline, CortisolandAldosterone. The release of these chemicals results in the fight-or-flight response, which includes:
- Accelerated heart rate and breathing
- Paling or flushing of the skin
- Slowed digestion
- Constriction of blood vessels in some parts of the body, dilation in others
- Liberation of nutrients to increase muscular action
- Dilated pupils
- Inhibited tear production and salivation
- Tunnel vision
- Relaxed bladder
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
Most people think of stress in a negative light, but a little stress is fundamental to our survival, says Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of research at the Stanford Center on Stress & Health.
Good stress is short term, lasting for a few minutes to a few hours. This type of stress initiates the fight-or-flight response. Most of us experience a little of this good stress daily with periods of calm in between. Short bouts of stress temporarily strengthen the immune system and increase mental and physical performance.
Bad stress is chronic or long term. It results when the biological stress response is active for months or even years. This can occur from a single long-term stressor or many short-term stressors happening back-to-back with no recovery time in between.
Common Causes of Stress
Stress can come from a variety of sources, either internal or external, short term or long term. The top five stressors Americans face according to a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) include:
- Finances (64% of respondents rated this factor as a “somewhat” or “very” significant source of stress)
- Work (60%)
- The economy (49%)
- Family responsibilities (47%)
- Personal health concerns (46%)
Effects of Stress
Long term stress is the leading cause of a host of chronic health problems. Research from APA (published here andhere) points out some of the most dangerous concerns:
- Heart disease: Risk increases twofold when stressed people develop depression and anxiety;
- Insomnia: 40% of adults say they lie awake at night because of stress;
- Obesity: Unhealthy chronic stress contributes to the growing obesity epidemic as people turn to “comfort food” in order to cope;
- Diabetes: The liver produces more glucose in response to stress to facilitate the fight-or-flight response. If the body doesn’t reabsorb this; extra blood sugar, it can lead to diabetes;
- High blood pressure: The fight-or-flight response temporarily increases blood pressure, but chronic stress keeps levels high for a prolonged; period, increasing the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke;
- Weakened immune function: Stress increases susceptibility to infection and worsens chronic health conditions;
- Depression: from mild to severe depression, stress is often the cause or an contributor to the disease;
- Anxiety & Panic Disorder are often triggered by chronic stress.
The good news is that you can learn to lower your daily stress and increase your mental resilience. Read about it here.