What is Stress?
Stress is a word we see everywhere – on the web, on television where we are warned about its dangers, in magazines where we are assured that some vitamin or supplement will make it go away, and in articles everywhere where we are told that stress could be destroying our health. But what is stress? Can stress be a good thing? Is stress killing us? And do we have any way we can control the amount of stress in our life?
Is All Stress the Same?
Stress can be good or bad. If you are faced with an emergency, stress can be a good thing. Let’s say your child is ill or you are in an emergency situation. Then stress is immediate and it actually helps you cope with the situation. You get a burst of adrenaline that triggers the “fight-or-flight” response. That response is the body’s stress response and it can help save your life. The “fight-or-flight” response helps your body stay alert, fully focused, and strong. It gives you an extra burst of strength and focus and can literally save your life.
On a milder level, the stress response can also help you “stay-on-your-toes” and perform at your best. Whether you are giving a presentation at work or pitching a ball in a game, the stress response can help you perform at your very best by temporarily increasing your strength and improving your focus.
The stress response can help you in these situations. It can make you perform at your best. It can even save your life. But this short-term stress response is not good for you when it becomes a long-term stress response and starts to rule your life.
When is Stress a Bad Thing?
The “fight-or-flight” response was historically imprinted in us to help save us from predators like hungry tigers. If the body senses immediate danger, the response is triggered to make you stronger, faster, clearer so you can escape. Your body releases a collection of stress hormones that make your body ready for an emergency. The hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, make your heart beat faster, shoot up your blood pressure, sharpen your senses, and increase your rate of breathing.
This hormonal influx makes you stronger, increases your stamina, speeds up your ability to react, and increases your ability to focus. You are now ready to run from that tiger. You run fast from the tiger, and hopefully you survive. If you survive, the stress response stops. You have won. You have survived. The hormones return to normal. For a short time, the extra hormones did their job and saved your life. But when the danger goes away, the hormones and their body responses also go away.
But What Happens When There is no Tiger?
When there is no tiger, the stress response never goes away. Your stress response might be triggered by bad drivers on the road, by running late for a meeting, by an aggravating neighbor, or by a million other things. You are stressed repeatedly but the stress response never truly goes away. The small stressors are additive.
The body continues to pump out stress hormones. Adrenaline and cortisol pump into the body. They increase blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, and the senses become sharper. But there is no tiger so none of those things are doing your body any good. In fact, they are damaging your health. Every day while you are experiencing the stress response, you are slowly but steadily eroding your health.
Harmful Effects of Uncontrolled Stress
The prolonged stress response starts to have an effect on so many parts of your body. It can show up as heart disease or skin conditions. It can turn into depression or anxiety. Many people have sleep issues.
People can suffer from digestive issues or even autoimmune diseases where the body’s immune system turns on itself. Some people have issues with their weight and many women have issues with their reproductive system. Most people notice issues with their brain and their memory.
There is really no body system – body or brain – that is unaffected by chronic stress. Chronic stress is definitely a killer. It just kills slowly. The tiger doesn’t get you but your stress does kill you slowly.
Recognize Dangerous Stress
If you are experiencing stress on a regular basis, then you need to take action to protect your health. There are many things you can do to reduce your stress level. First, you need to become aware of your own stress level. You need to observe yourself on a regular basis. Ask yourself whether you are having difficulty sleeping, are you feeling angry or agitated on a regular basis, or is your energy waning? Observe your breathing and heart rate. Do you feel “sped up?”
If you are noticing any of these symptoms of stress, then ask yourself how long they have been present. If something bad happened at work or in your family, then feeling this type of stress for a few days is normal. It is how the stress response is meant to be helpful. But if this response and these feelings are becoming a way of life, then it is time to take action.
Turn Off Unproductive Stress?
If you need to turn off or dial down your stress response, then here are a few tools that can help you do just that.
- Develop a stress reduction strategy that calms the mind and body. A meditation practice is an excellent way to take control of a mind that wants to worry and zig-zag out of control.
- Deep breathing is another excellent way to calm both the body and mind. Breathing deeply and slowly, and then exhaling slowly triggers the “relaxation response”. This is the body’s response that is meant to calm all the body functions and also to calm the mind. Breathing from the diaphragm to the count of 5, holding the breath to the count of 5, and then exhaling to the count of 5 is a simple practice that will automatically trigger the body’s relaxation response.
- Develop a regular exercise program. Walking 20-30 minutes a day will reduce stress and trigger the relaxation response. Even a vigorous exercise program will help your mind and body relax. It is all good so pick something you enjoy and do it consistently.
- Develop friendships and close relationships. This has been shown to reduce stress and improve the body’s ability to relax and handle stressful events.
Finally, talk to your physician. Always start with an examination and look for any physical issues that might be contributing to the stress. Your physician might suggest specific relaxation practices or even supplements that can help you learn to manage stress on a regular basis.
Stress can be managed. Stress is a natural part of life, but you can make a change in how you handle stress. By developing a strategy to manage stress, you can improve your overall health and your mood.