Historically, our stress response served a vital purpose. It kept us alive by enabling us to escape quickly from predators, or react quickly when hunting prey animals. It is our “fight or flight” response, and was designed to be a brief reaction used by our bodies in response to an immediate situation. So what happens when our stress response is prolonged beyond the brief reaction it was designed to be? Research suggests some serious consequences.
When our body’s stress response is triggered, key hormones are released that facilitate the physiological effects of the response. These key hormones that make up the backbone of the stress response are adrenaline and glucocorticoids. In a typical fight or flight situation, these hormones are “turned off” once the threat has passed and the response has been stopped. Unfortunately, in today’s society, our stress response tends to stay in the “on position” more often than not. While we are no longer fleeing from predators, or chasing down our next meal, we are facing new and constant stress in the form of jobs, families, finances, social interactions, etc. Even though the causes of today’s tress tend to be psychological in nature, we still respond to them on the same physiological level. The result is that our cells are essentially bathing in these corrosive hormones on a regular basis, with harmful effects to our health.
Robert Sapolsky is a Stanford University neurobiologist, and leading stress researcher. His field research utilizing wild baboon troops has spanned decades, and produced valuable data regarding the long term effects of stress. According to Sapolsky’s research, prolonged exposure to stress, and it’s accompanying hormones, can cause a variety of damaging effects. Some of these effects include:
- High blood pressure and hypertension.
- Increased risk for heart disease.
- Increased risk for adult onset diabetes.
- Increased risk of various gastrointestinal disorders.
- Suppressed immune system, leading to an increased risk from infectious diseases.
- Suppressed reproductive systems, resulting in erectile dysfunction and fertility issues.
- Physical brain damage. Atrophy of the hippocampus has been observed, impairing (possibly permanently) learning, memory, and judgement.
- Accelerated aging. Shortening of the telomeres that “cap” the ends of your chromosomes has been documented, which can cause your DNA to age prematurely.
These are very real, physical side effects of chronic stress that go beyond the simple psychological discomfort of being stressed. If you are one of the millions of people who live under a constant state of stress, you could experience these side effects (if you haven’t already) without some sort of “stress intervention”. While stress is unavoidable for most of us, there are things we can do to cope with it. Try some of the following tips to reduce the effects of stress in your daily life:
- Identify and eliminate the sources of your stress. Some are unavoidable, but others may be able to be eliminated. Do you have a toxic person in your life that you may be better off without? Or maybe looking for a new job is a possibility if work is the primary source of your stress?
- Consider counseling if your coping skills are deficient when it comes to handling stress.
- Make sure that you take time for yourself to recharge. Whatever helps you to relax after a long or stressful day is important to incorporate into your routine. Getting regular massages, or even a simple bubble bath can be helpful for some people. Others may prefer physical activity like hiking in nature, working out, or playing sports. Activities that engage your mind such as cooking, gardening, or journaling/writing can be therapeutic as well.
- Reach out to others. Studies have shown that those with a positive support network of family and friends tend to cope with stress better.
- Lead a healthy lifestyle. Eating clean and participating in regular physical activity can help your body combat the physical effects of stress. Reduce unhealthy habits such as alcohol, tobacco, or drug use – even if they seem to be a helpful way to cope.
- Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Give your body the time it needs to rest and repair itself from stress.
Be proactive when it comes to stress and your health. Pay attention to your body and recognize the physical and psychological signs that stress might be too prevalent in your life. Most importantly, take the time to nurture yourself and minimize the impacts that daily stress can have.
About the Author: Jess Noble is a freelance writer and blogger with a passion for food, health, and social causes. She can also be found at her own blog: Pandora’s Cupboard.
Sources For This Article:
Stress: Portrait of a Killer, Documentary, 2008
Stanford University: Killer Stress