It’s common knowledge now that stress and health have a love-hate relationship. We ascribe fatigue and illness to stress, and we know that balance is important. But, what exactly is the relationship between stress and health, and how does stress really affect our bodies?
Not all stress is bad for us, actually. The stress response of the body is a necessary one. As the Mayo Clinic website explains:
When you encounter perceived threats — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.
Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
Our body’s ability to adapt to different situations is a critical response mechanism. Our ancestors would not have survived without fight-or-flight capabilities. We ourselves would probably be unable to complete important tasks were it not for some of the stress we feel. However, chronic and relentless stress can take its toll. Stress is meant to be a response to an acute situation, altering with longer periods of calm-yet alert states. When stress is prolonged and/or severe, it can be brutal on our bodies. The article explains:
But when the stressors of your life are always present, leaving you constantly feeling stressed, tense, nervous or on edge, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on. The less control you have over potentially stress-inducing events and the more uncertainty they create, the more likely you are to feel stressed. Even the typical day-to-day demands of living can contribute to your body’s stress response.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:
Worsening of skin conditions, such as eczema
That’s why it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with the stressors in your life.
In fact, WebMD tells us that stress can advance our age:
Accelerated aging. There’s actually evidence that stress can affect how you age. One study compared the DNA of mothers who were under high stress — they were caring for a chronically ill child — with women who were not. Researchers found that a particular region of the chromosomes showed the effects of accelerated aging. Stress seemed to accelerate aging about 9 to 17 additional years.
Despite the fact that we know that stress is “bad” for us, we tend to ignore the fact that we are tense until it catches up with us via an illness. Instead, it’s important to think about how continued stress might be affecting our lives, and to take steps to reduce it before major problems begin.