We all know that stress is bad for us and this is something we get told very often. However, it’s all too easy to write this off as being a minor nuisance or frustration rather than anything to really worry about. We all get stressed from time to time, right?
In reality though, this is the wrong way to think about stress. While it is fairly common place, that is not to say that it isn’t serious. In fact, stress is incredibly serious and can cause severe problems both in the short term and long term.
Stress can shorten your lifespan. Ruin your enjoyment. Cause serious illness. Shrink your brain. Hurt your performance. Ruin your relationships. Cause impotence.
Do those sound like small matters?
To understand this better, it can help to look more closely at what precisely stress is. How it causes the problems it does and how and why you need to do everything you can to prevent and reduce it.
Stress is what we feel when we’re overworked, when we’re dreading something that’s about to happen or when we’re generally unable to relax and stay calm due to outside or inside factors influencing our thoughts. But it actually goes beyond this. Stress is a basic physiological reaction that is designed to help us focus and survive. In itself it is not a bad thing and is actually rather adaptive. The problem is that it has been taken out of context, which means the positive effects become outweighed by the negative.
Essentially, stress is what causes the ‘fight or flight response’. This is a physiological response to perceived danger, designed to improve our chances of survival. If you were to see a lion for example, this would trigger a cascade of effects collectively resulting in the stress response.
This begins when we observe danger or experience fear. Increased activity in our brain, causes the release of adrenaline, as well as dopamine, norepinephrine and cortisol – our stress hormones. These then trigger a number of physiological changes: increasing our heartrate, making us breathe more quickly and making us more acutely focused on the potential threat.
A list of the symptoms would include:
Rapid, shallow breathing
Increased blood viscosity
Suppression of the pain response
Suppression of the immune system
Suppression of the digestive system
Dilation of the pupils
Dilation of the blood vessels
Reduction in prefrontal cortex activity (temporo-hypofrontality)
In the short term, this is good for us. In the short term, these things help us to evade danger and win combative situations. Increased muscle tension makes us stronger. Increased blood viscosity makes our blood more likely to clot in case of an injury. Dilated pupils let more light in to improve our vision. Suppression of secondary functions means that more blood can be sent to the muscles and the brain. Reduced pain means we can carry on fighting or running despite injury.
In short, anything that can help you to survive is prioritized, while secondary functions are suppressed. The idea is that once we get to safety, we can then turn off this fight or flight response and instead enter the ‘rest and digest’ state in order to recover. Once the predator is gone, we can recover. But the problem is that in our modern environments, predators aren’t the main problem. It’s rare these days for us to be chased, to get into a fight or to need to escape a forest fire.
What’s not so rare, is for our boss to shout at us and to tell us that we’re late for our deadline. It’s not rare for us to be in debt. It’s not rare for us to have marital problems. And unfortunately, the brain interprets all these signals in just the same way: as threats. And this causes the same fight or flight response. But because these types of threats aren’t so easily resolved, this means we’ll often end up on heightened alert for a longer period of time.
Chapter 1: Why You MUST Stress Less
- So What Exactly is Stress?
- How Stress Damages the Brain
Chapter 2: Understanding the Complexity of Your Stress Systems
- How Physiological Changes Trigger Stress
Chapter 3: How to Manage Normal Stress
Chapter 4: Meditation
- How to Get Started With Meditation
- Correct Breathing for Stress Reduction
Chapter 5: Mindfulness and CBT