by Katherine Raymond
From why we feel it to its effects on your health, learn the basics about stress. If you know more about it you might find it easier to avoid in the future! Learn the top ten things you should know about stress. Some of them may surprise you!
"Anytime we are faced with something our minds perceive as outside our ability to cope with easily, the body gears up to cope with it," explains psychologist Dr. Fred Luskin of the Stanford Forgiveness Project. "That is the stress response."
The stress response can be traced back to our cave-dwelling ancestors' "fight or flight" instincts. "The things that stress people out are the things that threaten our sense of survival," notes Dr. Andrew Elmore, a stress management expert at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. "If a tiger jumps out, your body gets this tremendous rush of energy. You use that extra energy to deal with the stressful stimulus." Nowadays, though, "survival contains a lot of ideas — your money, your career, your family and so on. And whenever you're worrying about something really important, your body still behaves as if your life were physically threatened."
"When you feel like you're in danger, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in," explains Cathy Calderon, director of Shambhala Yoga & Dance Center. Once the brain perceives stressful stimuli, it organizes a number of chemical changes in the body:
• The body releases hormones that heighten our senses to better detect possible threats.
• Our heart rate and blood pressure increase as our circulatory system gears up to bring the extra oxygen and energy to our limbs if it is needed for fighting or fleeing.
• Other biological systems (like the immune system) and processes (like digestion) slow down.
All of this makes sense, and can be healthy in the short–term. But chronic activation of the stress response wears the body down. For example, excessive stress can result in cardiovascular problems, weakened immune systems, and inefficient metabolism, leading to weight gain or even diabetes.
When you're under a lot of stress, "the adrenal glands pump out cortisol, which suppresses the immune system," warns Dr. Esther Sternberg of the National Institute of Mental Health. "Over time, chronically stressed people become more susceptible to illness." Chronic stress can also lead to high blood pressure, which, "untreated, causes damage to the organ system, kidneys, eyes, and heart," according to Carolyn C. Lopez of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "The heart muscle gets strained from having to force blood out against high resistance. Eventually that muscle wears out, and you have problems with heart failure."
It sure seems that way, since Americans are working longer hours and even kids are over-scheduled. But peoples' experience can be hard to measure. In recent years, we've developed a "greater awareness of stress and its dangers," says Dr. Kathy HoganBruen, Senior Director of Prevention at the National Mental Health Association (NMHA). Dr. Esther Sternburg adds that "people are much more serious in the way they approach stress now. They want to know the scientific and medical explanation for what they're feeling, so they can say, 'This is not all in my head.'" Dr. Elmore agrees: "Hippocrates said 2000 years ago that two-thirds of all illnesses were stress-related. And when we finally got around to doing the research, that's about what it turned out to be."
Dr. Christian VanDenBerg, Director of the Executive Health Program at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, lists the red flags. Two or more of these can signal that you need to work on managing stress.