Everybody knows what stress feels like – it’s that sensation you get when you’re trying to finish up a project for an incoming deadline, or when you’re stuck going 20 mph on the highway during rush hour. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but not really something we can escape. Plus, stress also comes from things we consider to be good for us: getting married, starting a family, walking for graduation. It is so ingrained into our society and our ways of life, that sometimes people forget to step back and think about what stress means to them.
Stress is normal. It comes from external sources like work and major life changes, or from internal sources like unrealistic expectations and negative self-talk. Unfortunately, there is a point where the strain becomes too much. In 2018, the Stress in America survey revealed that, on a scale from 1 to 10, the average stress level for all adults was 4.9. Compared to the healthy stress level of 3.9, this shows that American adults might be going through more strain than necessary (1).
Stress affects your body and mind in many ways. Research studies on stress have traditionally focused on the effects of traumatic events. However, it is just as important to understand the effects of daily stress as well. There is a connection between stress and one’s mental state, and it varies depending on how the person conducts herself and what coping strategies she utilizes. In addition, the compounded effects of daily stressors can reasonably predict the appearance of depression and anxiety symptoms (2). Because of the impact that stress can take on your mental and physical health, it is important that people pay attention to how they feel.
In terms of mood, stressed individuals are more likely to feel anxious, restless, depressed, or have a lack of motivation (3). This is due to how you perceive your stress and how your brain analyzes this perception. In a stressful situation, the emotional control center in your brain, the amygdala, sends a distress signal to another portion of the brain, prompting the fight-or-flight response. During the fight-or-flight response, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline to spur you into action. This explains the elevated heart rate, higher blood pressure, quickened breathing, and heightened senses that people often note when they are stressed. Once the stressful situation ends, your body should allow your cortisol and adrenaline levels to fall and return to normal levels (4).
It is important to realize that your body can’t properly distinguish between physical and emotional threats. Whether you’re about to get hit in a fistfight or you’re arguing with a coworker, your body will interpret both situations in a similar way – it will react as if you were facing a life-or-death situation. If you experience chronic stress, your body will be stimulated and release excess cortisol constantly. This gradually wears down your brain’s ability to deal with different stimuli, making you vulnerable to mental health issues such as depression (5). High levels of cortisol can disrupt the synaptic wiring of your brain, making it more difficult for you to interact with other people. Stress can even influence the size and structure of your brain by shrinking your prefrontal cortex and amygdala. The prefrontal cortex is the portion of the brain that carries out executive functioning. It controls your memory, learning, decision-making, self-control and more. And if your amygdala is also affected, it will make it harder for you to respond to stress (4).
Oddly enough, stress is your body’s natural way of protecting you. If you end up in some dangerous situation, reactions in your body cause you to gain extra focus, alertness, and energy (5). So, chronic stress changes your natural defense system. It’s like a skewed feedback loop. These intensified physical responses are what cause your mind to race and expend extra energy. If you don’t figure out how to manage your stress, it could interfere with your mental capacities and lead to mental health problems.
To build up your defenses, there are some actions you can take to help create support. One of the biggest options is develop a more positive, relaxed attitude and outlook. By having a good understanding of how you react, you can work on the way you deal with your emotions and develop a stronger sense of control in life. Keeping your body healthy is another beneficial option you can take. If your physical health is good, that gives you more energy and motivation to work on your mental health. That can mean paying attention to what you eat and incorporating healthier elements to your diet, or getting proper rest and engaging in moderate exercise. In addition, developing a strong support network is a powerful option. You can try a variety of options to see what works best for you (5). Stress will always be present in life, but what is important is how you perceive and respond to it.
1. American Psychological Association. (2018). Stress in AmericaTM Generation Z. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf
2. Schönfeld, P., Brailovskaia, J., Bieda, A., et al. (2016). The effects of daily stress on positive and negative mental health: Mediation through self-efficacy. International journal of clinical and health psychology, 16(1), 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2015.08.005
3. “Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior.” Mayo Clinic, 2019. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987
4. Bernstein, Rebecca. “The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain.” Touro University Worldwide, 2016. https://www.tuw.edu/health/how-stress-affects-the-brain/
5. Segal, Jeanne, et al. “Stress Symptoms, Signs, and Causes.” HelpGuide.org, 2019. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-symptoms-signs-and-causes.htm/
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