Everyone experiences stress and anxiety at one time or another.
Whether in good times or bad, most people say that stress interferes at least moderately with their lives. Chronic stress can affect your health, causing symptoms from headaches, high blood pressure, and chest pain to heart palpitations, skin rashes, and loss of sleep. But what exactly is it?
Stress is a response by your body to an event you feel challenging. Known as the ‘stress-response’, it is your body’s attempt to restore allostasis; on more simple terms, a way to regulate your physiology back to homeostasis when it is triggered by an event you feel poses a challenge in some way.
The problem is, whereas the stress-response evolved to rescue us from physical threats, it can be triggered by psychological events too. Such as money worries, etc.
The idea behind the stress-response is that your muscles are soon to be doing a lot of work, so they therefore need energy. Heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase in order to help deliver nutrients and oxygen at greater rates.
The problem is, the majority of our stressors are now psychological, but we still illicit the same physical response.
Why is this a problem?
This response, as mentioned already, was created to assist us in response to physical threats. This means it was also developed to work on a short-term basis; not for hours or days.
This stress response utilises mechanisms that are inefficient and only consider the short-term. This makes sense; it was designed for physical action, and at the end of combat, you are either alive or not. It would make sense to rally the defenses now, because if not, there might not be a next time anyway.
But when it is activated constantly, these inefficient mechanisms take their toll. As mentioned, they weren’t designed to be used long-term, so doing so causes problems. They are designed as a last-effort defense. Worrying about finances for weeks or months on end, however, is an example of activating it long-term.
Examples of long term effects of this response are fatigue, risk of diabetes increasing, and your cardiovascular system is activated chronically. Blood pressure will be high on a consistent basis. You see where this is going?
Reproductive disorders are a high possibility when under constant stress. Why make someone fertile when they may not be around to mate anytime soon? Put that on hold and rally the defenses first. Menstrual cycles can turn irregular, or even completely cease. For males, sperm count may declines and, for both males and females, interest in sex becomes much lower.
I assure you that this is only the tip of the iceberg as to what can happen when the stress-response is triggered chronically (long-term).
There is hope
You can learn how to reduce the impact of stress and manage your symptoms.
Physical activity is a proven way to reduce stress, and one of the greatest methods to do so. Regular participation in aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease overall levels of tension, elevate and stabilize mood, and improve sleep and self-esteem.
Other effective methods include mind-body practices of breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation. Studies have shown clear physiological benefits during meditation. But please note that is has to be done regularly.
Another great method of stress-reduction is to learn to accept uncertainty. One of the greatest issues worriers have is that they feel uncertainty automatically means negative. Get started on this self-help module from the Centre for Clinical Interventions. There are many more on their site you may find useful, linked here. They are all free so make the most of them!
Relaxation techniques have been used to assist in the treatment of phobias, panic disorder, and depression, as well as providing relief for people in stressful situations.
A book I cannot recommend highly enough is Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. It is the ultimate guide to stress and the issues it causes, and from where the majority of the information here was gathered.