By Heather Mongilio/Matters of the Mind
What is stress?
Stress is a normal, natural reaction to environmental or social stimuli, such as an upcoming exam or sitting in traffic. It can even be healthy, giving an extra push to finish a project or meet a deadline, according to the National Institutes of Health.
How does the body react to stress?
When a person is stressed, their body enters fight-or-flight mode. So what does this mean?
- Heart rate and breathing rate increase
- Blood pressure rises
- Blood is moved away from the digestive tract
- When the body is under extreme stress, the bladder empties
Once the stressor is over, the body returns to its natural state.
The fight-or-flight mode is an evolutionary protection. It prepares your body to go to battle with something that can eat you. Or if your body thinks you will be eaten, it makes you flee.
Robert Sapolsky, in his book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” describes the situation as a zebra getting chased by a lion. The zebra’s fight-or-flight system kicks into gear and the zebra starts running for his or her life. Its heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, breathing rate increases, bladder empties, bowel movements stop, etc. However, Sapolsky says that the zebra will only have to maintain this reaction for about 30 minutes. After that, the zebra is either safe or dead.
So when is stress unhealthy?
The saying, “too much of one thing is a bad thing,” is the key here. Stress can be helpful in moderation, especially to get something done.
However, with chronic stress, such as sitting in traffic everyday, fighting with friends or unemployment, the body stays in the fight-or-flight mode, which it cannot maintain. The body is not meant to be constantly fighting stress, but it’s often unavoidable. After all, you cannot fight off traffic or having to study for five finals.
What does chronic stress do to the body?
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say stress kills. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress can:
- cause arteries to clog
- interrupt sleep cycles
- cause muscle tension
- make breathing harder
- cause memory problems
- cause stomach pain
Is there any good news?
Yes. Stress isn’t all negative, and it does play an important role, especially when it comes to motivation for meeting deadlines.
And how one thinks about stress may lessen the negative effects. Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., suggests thinking about stress as courage in a TED talk. Her research has found that when you think about stress as courage, the body doesn’t have the same wear and tear from chronic stress as those who think of stress as the enemy.