What is Stress? What Happens When We Experience it?

Stress is an inevitable part if our lives. It can arise from various sources: an exam, a job interview, financial problems, relationship issues. According to a study conducted by the Global Organization for Stress, 80% of people feel stressed at work, and it is the single biggest health concern among students.

Stress, however, isn’t always bad and is actually essential for survival. It is a natural response of the body to danger, and triggers the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response in our bodies at the time of danger and helps us avoid it. However, exposing ourselves to too much constant stress can have harmful effects on our health in the long run.

Stress is the body’s natural defence mechanism against outside danger or threats. When you face a threat, your body activates the stress-hormonal glands and starts to release a large amount of cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenalin in the bloodstream. These stress hormones trigger a number of responses in the body, such as:

  • heightened muscle preparedness,
  • increased heart rate,
  • high blood pressure,
  • high alertness, and
  • sweating

These responses improve the body’s ability to respond to potential threats and protect us from getting injured.

In the prehistoric era, stress helped our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive in the wild. This included protecting them from predators and other dangers. But we are not exposed to the same kinds of physical threats that our ancestors were.

Caveman facing danger from a Saber Tooth Tiger.
Caveman facing danger from a Saber Tooth Tiger.
The human body’s stress responses have been the same since the prehistoric era

In today’s world, we experience threats that are more psychological and emotional in nature, rather than physical.

However, the human stress responses haven’t evolved with time. We still have the same type of stress responses as our ancestors did.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. We all get stressed out once in a while. In fact, in small doses, it has many advantages; it helps us meet daily challenges, and motivates us to reach our goals. It is the warning system of the body. When your brain perceives any danger, it floods your body with stress hormones and prepares you to respond to the potential threat.

For example, when you have an exam or a job interview, you feel butterflies in your stomach, and the palms of your hands become sweaty. What this means is that your body is preparing for the challenge, and will result in greater alertness and readiness.

Stress in a limited measure boosts the immune system and strengthens the heart muscles.

Graph showing the Stress and Performance Curve with different stages randing from inactive, laid back, fatugue, exhaustion, anxiety/panic/anger, and breakdown.
Graph showing the Stress and Performance Curve with different stages randing from inactive, laid back, fatugue, exhaustion, anxiety/panic/anger, and breakdown.
The degree of stress we experience can be good or bad depending where we are on the Stress Curve

The human body can recover from stress rather quickly. Once the perceived threat has passed, the hormones return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure also come down to normal levels. But the problem arises when we are constantly exposed to stress, and our fight-or-flight responses are constantly turned on.

Long-term activation of stress responses can cause overexposure of stress hormones in the body and create long-term health problems.

There are several hormones that fuel a wide range of physical and emotional responses involved in stress. Let us learn about them.

Imagine you are waiting to go in for a job interview. Your heart starts pounding, you start breathing heavily, and your palms get all sweaty. That’s adrenaline doing its job.

Adrenaline is one of the hormones responsible for our fight-flight-freeze-fawn response.

In fact, adrenaline alone is responsible for most of the immediate responses for stress. Adrenaline not only increases the heart rate but also gives us a surge of energy to be able to run away from immediate danger. It also increases our focus and energy levels for a short span of time.

Norepinephrine is a hormone similar to adrenaline. The adrenal glands release this hormone as well. The main purpose of norepinephrine is to increase our focus.

When we are stressed, we become more aware of the situation and become more focused because of norepinephrine.

Norepinephrine also helps direct the blood flow to the areas where it is required, such as the muscles and heart.

Cortisol is one of the key hormones for managing stress. It gets released from the adrenal gland of our brain when our brain senses some danger.

Cortisol plays different roles in a threatening situation. It regulates the fluid balance and blood pressure in the body and shuts down unnecessary functions such as reproduction, immunity, digestion, and growth in the body at critical moments when the body perceives a threat.

Infographic showing Cortisol Functions. Cortisol is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration.
Infographic showing Cortisol Functions. Cortisol is released in response to stress and low blood-glucose concentration.
Effects of cortisol on the body

Small bursts of cortisol also get released when we wake up in the morning or exercise. These bursts help to regulate the blood sugar and blood pressure levels in the body and even strengthen the heart muscles.

In a high-stress environment, our body continuously pumps all the stress hormones. This can have long-term adverse effects on the body. Here are some negative consequences of being exposed to stress on a regular basis.

1. Increase in blood sugar: Insulin helps the human body to convert glucose into energy. But cortisol suppresses the release of insulin in the blood, causing blood sugar levels to increase.

2. Impact on breathing: We tend to breathe quickly to distribute more oxygen into the bloodstream. It is necessary when we are in danger, but continuous exposure to heavy breathing can cause breathing problems and may lead to hyperventilation. Rapid breathing can also trigger anxiety and panic attacks.

3. Impact on the immune system: Constant exposure to cortisol suppresses the immune system of the body, and we become more vulnerable to infections and chronic diseases.

4. Muscle stiffness: Stress causes our muscles to stiffen up, which is the body’s natural way of protecting itself from injury and pain. But prolonged muscle stiffness can cause muscle aches and pains in the body, and can also lead to headaches and migraines.

Effects of Chronic Stress Cause illness The headaches, abdominal pain, high blood pressure, angina, insomnia, can adversely affect the heart. Presented by vector illustration infographic flat cartoon
Effects of Chronic Stress Cause illness The headaches, abdominal pain, high blood pressure, angina, insomnia, can adversely affect the heart. Presented by vector illustration infographic flat cartoon

5. Increased heart rate and blood pressure: Our heart rate and blood pressure generally returns to normal after acute stress has passed. But if you are exposed to constant stress, it increases the risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke.

6. Digestive problems: Cortisol pauses the digestion process during high stress. It decreases the body’s ability to absorb food. As a result, you may experience stomach pain, bloating, nausea, diarrhoea, or constipation. Regular stress can weaken the digestive system overall.

7. Anxiety and panic attacks: Consistent worrying and stress can be problematic as they fuel anxiety. For example, stressful life events such as the death of a close one, financial pressures, etc., can build up anxiety. Anxiety, in turn, can trigger a panic disorder, which is a chronic condition that grows gradually and takes time to treat.

Stress not only affects our physical but also our emotional and mental well-being. When we are always stressed out, we feel more tired, have mood swings, are more irritable, and negative.

It can also cause sleep problems, insomnia, reduced concentration, and memory loss. Continuous exposure could also lead to more severe mental health problems such as clinical depression, anxiety, and panic attacks.

An additional indirect effect is the increased likelihood of people taking up harmful habits like smoking and drinking or indulging in stress-eating which can lead to further health problems.

stress, eating problems, bulimia, compulsive overeating, sugar addiction, weight gain. woman with stack of chocolate cookies
stress, eating problems, bulimia, compulsive overeating, sugar addiction, weight gain. woman with stack of chocolate cookies
Stress eating is an unhealthy coping mechanism for stress

While stress is an inevitable part of modern life and is necessary to survive, if you feel that it is getting out of hand, you should learn to identify the signs of stress and take steps to manage the physical and emotional triggers that lead to stress. Learning to manage stress is essential to your long-term wellbeing and health.

Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only. Lokyatha has observed best effort due diligence and all health related content is reviewed by a trained professional before publishing. However, this should not and can not replace personalized medical help. Please refer to a professional in all cases of need.

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