Stress is an inevitable part of life that everyone experiences at some point. While a little bit of stress can actually be beneficial at times, helping motivate and focus us, chronic and extreme stress takes a major toll on both physical and mental health. Understanding exactly why this type of ongoing stress is so detrimental can give us the motivation we need to find better ways to manage it.
Stress Activates Our Fight or Flight Response
To begin, stress activates our body’s built-in survival mechanisms. When confronted with danger, whether physical or emotional, our hypothalamus signals our adrenal glands to release stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline. This primes us to deal with threat by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and energy. Cortisol also curbs non-vital functions like digestion, reproduction, growth and immunity so our resources focus on the immediate threat.
While vital in real life-or-death situations, these ongoing physical effects are not meant to constantly flood our system. Over time, the wear and tear leads to real damage. High blood pressure strains arteries and the heart. Suppressed immunity makes us prone to infections and illness. Our digestive system suffers. Reproductive health declines. Growth and tissue repair is stalled. We feel constantly wired yet exhausted at the same time.
Stress Is Linked to Chronic Health Problems
Research has directly linked chronic stress to health issues ranging from heart disease, diabetes and obesity to depression, anxiety disorders, insomnia and premature aging.
The effects of stress on the brain are well documented. When we experience repeated or chronic stress, our brains undergo subtle yet disruptive changes. Stress hormones like cortisol damage neurons in the hippocampus, the region vital to memory and learning. The amygdala, our brain’s emotional response center, becomes overactive leading to more anxiety and fear. Neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala weaken, making it harder to regulate emotional responses. Gray matter in the prefrontal cortex may shrink as well.
Over time, these stress-induced changes make it harder to concentrate, control emotions, and retrieve memories. Our cognition and mental health suffer across the board, all due to stress’s wearing effects on delicate brain structures.
Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms
Beyond the physical damage, extreme stress also often leads to unhealthy attempts to cope like overeating, smoking, drinking too much alcohol and misusing drugs. This only serves to compound the damage. The human body was simply not built to handle the level of stress that many people now experience in their everyday lives.
The good news is that while we can’t avoid all sources of stress, we can adopt habits that make it more manageable: getting regular exercise, eating a nutritious diet, getting enough sleep, setting aside relaxation time, seeking support and counseling when needed. Implementing even a few of these and limiting unnecessary stress where possible can go a long way toward protecting ourselves from chronic stress’s damaging effects. Paying attention to both mind and body gives us the best defense over time.
Though modern life may be loaded with pressures, taking conscious steps to protect our health from stress’s impacts gives us the ability to thrive. Our bodies will thank us for it.