You know what stress feels like. You’re on edge. Maybe it’s a big work deadline, or perhaps a lot happening in your personal life. But what’s going on beneath the surface?
Ultimately, stress triggers your fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response is your body’s natural survival instinct. Your body perceives a threat. So it pumps out stress hormones that enable you to run as fast as you can or fight off the perceived threat.
And it all begins in your brain. Your eyes and ears trigger the process. They send sensory information to the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of your brain involved in processing emotions. And it’s the part of the brain that perceives what you are seeing or hearing as a threat or not.
If the amygdala perceives a threat, it sends immediate information to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is known as the ‘command centre’ in the brain. It controls and regulates temperature, breathing, heart rate, the constriction or dilation of blood vessels, and much more. It does this through the part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system consists of 2 parts – the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. During a stress response, the hypothalamus stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. Consequently, the adrenal glands pump out epinephrine (commonly called adrenaline) into your bloodstream.
Epinephrine increases your heart rate, sending blood to the areas of the body that need it – such as the muscles and heart. You begin to breathe faster. Your lung tissue is stimulated to maximize the amount of oxygen intake. And this hormone also causes your body to release glucose from your storage cells into your bloodstream. This provides the energy your body needs to flee or fight the perceived threat.
If the perceived threat disappears – such as dodging an object flying toward you – the parasympathetic nervous system will hit the brakes. It will decrease the stress response – lowering your heart rate and returning your body to normal functioning.
Yet, if the threat doesn’t disappear, the sympathetic nervous system continues forward. The adrenal glands then release cortisol. This hormone keeps your body in a fight-or-flight state. And it’s where chronic stress happens.
And unfortunately, chronic stress has an array of negative effects on the body. In severe cases of stress, you may experience headaches, digestive issues, insomnia, a low libido, fatigue, a depleted immune system, and chest pain.
It puts strain on your cardiovascular system. Consequently, it increases your risk of damage to the blood vessels. And in turn, it increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke.
It drives you to eat more so that your body can keep up with the energy demands (which is why so many people gain weight when they are stressed out).
Long-term stress inevitably poses many health risks and problems. And it can be detrimental to your overall physical and mental health. So what can you do?