There’s no time of year more appropriate to talk about the effects of stress than the holidays. My guess is you’re feeling it now! In this blog, I’ll discuss what causes stress, when stress becomes dangerous, and what can be done to manage it.
Why Do We Get Stressed?
Stress is a natural phenomenon developed in ancient times. As a “fight or flight” response, it functioned to protect us from predators (1). You can imagine how stress was a positive, life-saving experience for cave-dwellers. If our ancestors hadn’t felt stress at the glimpse of, say, an approaching lion, we wouldn’t be here. Thankfully, times have changed, but we have a whole new world of stressors to contend with.
The body doesn’t discriminate against varying degrees of stress. A minor hassle is still perceived as a major threat (2). Our phone warns us of a “low battery” on a long commute home, so we go into a panic. I’m not trying to minimize our response to stress by any means. I’m right there with you! My point is, feeling the same amount of stress about a dying phone as we would about an approaching lion can actually be harmful to our health instead of saving our lives.
How Do We Respond to Stress?
Let’s take a look at what happens to the body when it responds to stress. The brain sends signals to the adrenal glands (organs that sit atop your kidneys), which release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol (2). Adrenaline causes the heart rate and blood pressure to increase. Cortisol elevates the level of sugar, or glucose, in the bloodstream to boost energy. Cortisol also suppresses processes that influence mood, motivation, and fear (2).
Although our circumstances have changed over time, our physical response to stress has remained consistent. Even minor stressors make our body feel like we’re under attack (2). Do your palms sweat when you have to speak publicly? Do you feel like running away when work and life seems unbearable? Unpleasant as things are, they are not life threatening. The stress response—an increase in heart rate and blood pressure—doesn’t help with the perceived threat in today’s world.
When Is Stress Unhealthy?
Sure, you can argue that some people work better under pressure and that stress is an excellent motivator. But stress poses a real danger when it becomes a chronic condition. Chronic stress interferes with your life and lasts for a long time (1).
It’s important to note that acute stress responses are not thought to be particularly burdensome, especially on younger people. But the long-term effect of persistent stress can be damaging. Chronic stress may contribute to heart attacks, arrhythmias, and even death (1). Other health problems associated with stress include:
- Heart disease
- Digestive problems
- Weight gain or loss
- Impaired memory and problems concentrating (2)
Stress can be dangerous in other ways, too. For example, it can lead to unhealthy habits like smoking and substance abuse, difficulty sleeping, and even accidents (3).
What Can We Do to Reduce Stress?
To cope with your stressors, you have to figure out what is causing the stress in the first place. Typical sources include strained relationships, money problems, poor health, childcare, and work. No matter what’s behind your stress, here are some healthy tips on how to cope:
- Build strong relationships. While bad relationships cause stress, healthy relationships can be a buffer to other stressors (3).
- Learn to blow off a little steam. Recognize when you’re angry and walk it off. Regular exercise and yoga or other relaxation techniques are effective in lowering stress (3).
- Get a good night’s sleep. The recommended 7-8 hours of sleep will help you relax and strengthen your immune system (3).
- Pick up healthy habits. Besides exercising and getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet helps fight stress (2).
- Get help. Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional who can train you how to manage your stress (3).
- Stress evolved from a “fight or flight” response to predators and other threats.
- Stress causes hormone levels to change and elevates your heart rate and blood pressure.
- Chronic stress is dangerous. It can lead to heart attacks, arrhythmias, and even death.
- Improving relationships and practicing healthy habits are effective ways to cope with stress.
- If relaxation and coping techniques don’t work, talk to a professional.