But what actually is stress and is it all bad?
The stress response is a survival mechanism within us to keep us alive. Once when we were hunters and gatherers and faced danger from wild animals, extreme hunger or cold, our stress response would alert chemical reactions in the body and brain so we would act accordingly to survive. The same happens today when we are faced with danger, for example running away from somebody, jumping out of the way of a car or hitting the deadline of a work project, our stress response is activated in the same way. This is not bad at all as long as the stress response is short lived. It is when the stress response is prolonged or chronic we run into troubles with our health.
The Stress Response 3 Stages
This is the fight or flight response. Adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones, are released from the adrenal glands for increased energy, heart rate and blood pressure and makes all senses sharper. The blood is shunted to our big muscles like the legs and arms so we have the strength to either fight or run and to our brains so we can think quicker and have quicker reflexes.
Stage 2: Resilience
There is still stress around but not as acute as in stage one. Adrenaline release is lower while cortisol can still be high but not as high as in the alarm stage. Elevated heart rate and blood pressure slowly reduces and the body starts to repair itself. If the stressor is going away completely the body continues to normalise to a restorative stage.
However if the stressor is there for a prolonged time for example in a stressful job situation, caring for sick family members, financial difficulties etc the stress hormone cortisol is being released for a prolonged time and other physiological changes happen within our body so we can cope. If this stage goes on for a length and is not resolved we move into the last stage.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
We end up here after a prolonged or chronic stress when the body’s resources to adapt to the situation runs out physically, mentally and emotionally. We have no more “fight” in us.You body is exhausted and you are unable to continue with normal tasks. Feelings of hopelessness and depression are often experienced.
In the second and third stages ill health often occurs. The immune system suffers and becomes weaker exposing us to infections, allergies and cancers, problems with digestion, blood pressure, high cholesterol, hormonal changes, skin issues, memory and concentration issues, weight gain or loss, depression or anxiety are just some problems seen in chronic and prolonged stress.
So we do need our stress response and no it is not all bad if we can resolve the stressful situation quickly and effectively. The stress response saves lives and gives us that edge to reach the deadline at work or think clearly in an exam or run that marathon as long as we can come back to rest and restore after.