The Effects of Stress
There is no question that we are leading increasingly stressful lives. Working full-time, going to the gym, driving our kids to their various after-school activities, plus doing all those household chores – it all adds up to a very busy schedule. So busy in fact, that most of us don’t have a moment to slow down and relax. So with all of these commitments to balance on a daily basis, it’s no wonder many of us loose our cool at the slightest annoyance. Think "road rage" – the term has practically become a euphemism for our society’s inability to deal with stress.
So with so many of us running on empty, we have to wonder: what causes stress in the first place? And what are the long-term effects of stress?
What is Stress?
Despite the increasingly negative connotations surrounding the word "stress", the feeling of being stressed out is actually a necessary and ancient bodily reaction to the perception of danger. When the human species was evolving, we learned to become in tune with the sense of impending danger, such as dangerous animals or other potential threats. In this way we were able to build up sufficient adrenaline to fight off these dangers – even if we were lacking in energy.
Nowadays, however, with our lives being significantly less hazardous, we are not faced with the same type of threats. We are, on the other hand, faced with numerous, more frequent attacks of these same sensory organs. Whether it’s a never-ending traffic jam, a massive line-ups, or the packed retail stores, we are almost constantly stimulating the same chemical reactions in our brains that our ancestors adapted many thousands of years ago.
So what is this process exactly? It all begins in our nervous system. The adrenal glands (located just above the kidneys) release adrenaline along with other hormones that increase your rate of breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure – enabling more oxygen to get to the brain so that you will have enough energy to deal with the perceived threat. You also will have a more heightened sense of awareness and will become less sensitive to pain.
On the other hand, other hormones in your body will be shut down once adrenaline has been released. For example, your immune system will be temporarily shut down, in addition to your reproductive organs – which is why chronic stress can lead to infertility. Your blood flow will also be reduced, which can cause skin problems.
Once the danger has gone away, however, your body does not immediately go back to normal. With your nervous system still on overdrive, it can take some time before it will start to slow down – and for older people, it can take even longer. Your system is trying to keep you alert in case the danger reappears. For some of us, however, the system takes a very long time to return to normal, as the stressor itself may last for some time. And while stress can be useful in certain situations (such as before a big presentation), over time, chronic stress can lead to a host of health problems
Long-term or chronic stress can be caused by any number of factors, which can range from being frequent but temporary (such as a traffic jam) or infrequent but enduring (the loss of a loved one). Some factors that can lead to chronic stress include:
- Chronic illness such as heart disease or diabetes
- Having emotion problems such as low self-esteem or unexpressed feelings of guilt, grief or anger; or mental illness such as depression
- Stressful daily life, which may include an unhealthy relationship, unfulfilling or overly demanding job, or financial difficulties
- Surroundings, if they are overly crowded, noisy or dangerous
- Having a loved one who is experiencing stress or depression
- Having unrealistic expectations for yourself or others
- Developmental stages or life transitional stages such as puberty, marriage, pregnancy or menopause
- Poor health habits such as smoking, drinking or overeating
Symptoms of Stress
The symptoms of stress are wide-ranging and encompass effects on your body, your mind and your behavior.
- Symptoms of Stress & Your Body:
- chest pains, pounding heart beat, shortness of breath
- high blood pressure
- clenched jaw, grinding teeth
- muscle aches and pains
- indigestion, cramping, bloating, diarrhea
Symptoms of Stress & Your Mind:
- depression, sadness
- lack of concentration
- low self-esteem
- forgetfulness, confusion
- guilt, resentment
- burnout (nervous breakdown)
Symptoms of Stress & Your Behavior:
- overeating/loss of appetite
- seemingly unprovoked outbursts of anger
- substance or alcohol abuse
- social withdrawal or isolation
- loss of sex drive
- unexplained crying
- job/life dissatisfaction
How Does Stress Affect Health?
Over the past couple of decades, several important studies have linked chronic stress to the onset of serious illnesses and disorders, including:
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- abusive behavior
- memory loss
That is why it is so important to learn proper stress management early on, so that you can prevent stress from taking over your life.