Stress, for almost all of us, is an inevitable part of life. Everyone experiences stress at some point, and different things will be stressful for different people. For some, being late can send them into a stress spiral, for others, being late is no big deal, but going a few hours without access to emails warrants a full blown meltdown.
There's no shame in feeling stressed, it is a natural part of life, and there's no hard and fast rules about what should or should not stress you out.
Is Stress a bad thing?
It might surprise you to learn that stress is not necessarily a bad thing. Some people thrive on that bit of adrenaline, and it helps them to work better or faster to meet an impending deadline. However, stress is a bad thing if it is prolonged. Too much stress can have long-term consequences on both our physical and mental wellbeing.
We experience stress as an evolutionary mechanism from our "fight or flight" days, as a surge of adrenaline to protect ourselves from/in a dangerous situation. Thankfully, these days the "danger" is less about running away from a lion, and more about meeting deadlines etc. However, these days, the modern lifestyle lends itself to long term stress, which opens us up to suffer from more debilitating effects of stress.
Physical Effects of Stress
If we're exposed to long-term, chronic stress, a number of systems are affected, including:
- Nervous system
Have you ever experienced a stressful moment, and physically felt your heart rate increase?
This happens because stress hormones are acting as messengers to tell the heart rate to increase, and make the contractions of the heart stronger. Prolonged exposure to these stress responses can cause inflammation, contributing to long term damage to blood vessels, and increasing the risk of heart attack.
Stress triggers a response from our autonomic nervous system, which in turn leads to the production of epinephrine and cortisol, known as the "stress hormones". These hormones, via the adrenal glands and liver, give your body the energy it needs to "fight or flight". However, for most of us, we won't use that extra energy, which will then lead to an increase in blood sugar levels.
We've all felt the butterflies or nausea when we're stressed, so it's no surprise to hear that long-term stress can lead to damage in the gastrointestinal system. It can slow down your digestion, create ulcers and even make heartburn more severe.
Chronic, long-term stress can result in a long-term drain, causing wear and tear on the body. While stress doesn't wear down the nervous system itself, systems connected to the nervous system can be damaged if it is consistently engaged.
Both the male and female reproductive systems are affected by long-term, chronic stress. In men, it can restrict the production and quality of sperm. For women, it can affect mensuration and PMS.
Stress and Mental Health
While stress is largely a physical response, it has a huge effect on the brain, and in turn, our mental health. Prolonged periods of stress can start to chip away at your mental health, in a number of ways:
- Emotional and Personality
- Behavioural and Cognitive
Long term stress has even been linked to an emergence of anxiety and/or depression.
When we're stressed, we tend to not be happy, and when we're unhappy for long periods of time, we suffer emotionally. If we remain stressed and unhappy over the long term, we can essentially forget who we are without stress, which can lead to more severe mental health issues.
Stress affects our behaviour in a number of ways, we might turn to a specific vice to try to alleviate the feeling, might withdraw from others, and could start eating either more or less than we need.
Memory problems, poor concentration, constantly worrying and anxious thoughts are all related to exposure to long term stress.