Sometimes Stress Isn’t So Bad
Stress gets a bad rap for good reason. It can cause physical problems like skin rashes and high blood pressure. It can lead to mental health problems too, like anxiety and depression. But we feel stress for a reason, and sometimes it is good for you.
The stress you feel before a big test or job interview can motivate you to succeed. It can even save your life stress from a dangerous situation can provoke a fight-or-flight reaction that raises your adrenaline and motivates you to act quickly. Sometimes stress gives you the quick pulse and alert mind you need to stay out of danger.
Whether stress helps or harms your body depends on many factors. One is whether your stress is acute or chronic. You know acute stress when you feel it–the way your heart races right after a car crash, or the sudden jolt of energy you get when you see a snake or spider. Acute stress goes away soon after the stressful cause is gone. But chronic stress is another story. The muscle pain that sets in after months of demanding work, the constant nausea you may feel during a financial crisis, and the uncontrolled weight gain you experience during a long, unhappy relationship can all be signs of chronic stress.
How Your Body Responds To Stress
When youre under stress, your brain releases a stress response. This sends signals via the pituitary gland to the adrenal glands, to release the hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline.
These hormones raise your blood pressure and give your body a dose of glucose that goes straight to your muscles. The idea is to get you ready and give you a boost of energy to respond to an immediate stressor.
Stress hormones are energising. They give you the motivation and focus to complete difficult tasks, solve problems, and reach your immediate goals. Thats why stress is good for you in small doses.
After the stressful situation has passed, your body can return to a normal, relaxed state. But ongoing, long-term stress the kind that cant easily be solved with a short burst of energy and focus can cause serious physical signs of stress.
Stress And Your Nervous System
When it comes to stress, everything begins in your brain. When you are confronted with danger, like nearly being hit by a car, your brain sends a distress signal to a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This is where your brain calls the shots for your automatic functions, sending orders to the rest of your body. When you’re stressed, adrenaline signals your body to rev up its heartbeat, blood pressure, and breathing. Your senses become sharper, and your brain becomes more alert.
This all happens in an instant. But stress causes long-term effects too. A hormone called cortisol is released, which keeps your body on high alert until the threat passes. For some situations and some people, though, stress levels remain high even after a perceived threat is gone. This leads to chronic stress.
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Etymology And Historical Usage
The term “stress” had none of its contemporary connotations before the 1920s. It is a form of the Middle Englishdestresse, derived via Old French from the Latinstringere, “to draw tight”. The word had long been in use in physics to refer to the internal distribution of a force exerted on a material body, resulting in strain. In the 1920s and ’30s, biological and psychological circles occasionally used the term to refer to a mental strain or to a harmful environmental agent that could cause illness.
Walter Cannon used it in 1926 to refer to external factors that disrupted what he called homeostasis. But “…stress as an explanation of lived experience is absent from both lay and expert life narratives before the 1930s”. Physiological stress represents a wide range of physical responses that occur as a direct effect of a stressor causing an upset in the homeostasis of the body. Upon immediate disruption of either psychological or physical equilibrium the body responds by stimulating the nervous, endocrine, and immune systems. The reaction of these systems causes a number of physical changes that have both short- and long-term effects on the body.
The Holmes and Rahe stress scale was developed as a method of assessing the risk of disease from life changes. The scale lists both positive and negative changes that elicit stress. These include things such as a major holiday or marriage, or death of a spouse and firing from a job.
How Does Stress Affect The Body
- Sat, Apr 17, 2021
Stress is a natural, essential part of our bodys response system. It stems from an innate survival instinct that we share with many other animals. When we experience something frightening or dangerous, stress is what drives us to react quickly, triggering our fight or flight impulse.
But chronic stress is completely different. While short-term stress can help us achieve important goals, long-term stress can actually cause serious health problems. Symptoms of stress include nagging feelings of worry, sleeplessness, anxiety, depression and even physical illness.
Long-term stress can cause a multitude of physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension and digestive problems, says Dr McClymont, Lead GP at Livi. In turn, these symptoms often make us feel anxious, worried, and even more stressed! Recognising signs of stress, and taking action to reduce it, is important for breaking this negative cycle.
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Hair Loss And Prematurely Graying Hair
Yufang Lin, MD, an integrative medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic, says stress can cause a temporary condition called telogen effluvium, which stops hair follicles from growing. This can lead hair strands to fall out more easily over time, often when someone is washing or brushing their hair. Usually, the hair will start growing back once the stressful period ends, Lin says.
Chronic stress can also cause people to lose pigment in their hair, resulting in premature graying, according to Chen. You see this often with our elected officials over time you can see that the level of work and constantly being on has an effect on people, he says.
Scientists recently uncovered a potential mechanism explaining why stress induces premature graying. Researchers found that the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, can affect the stem cells responsible for hair pigment. Sympathetic nerves that extend into the hair follicles release stress hormones, causing pigment-related stem cells to leave the hair follicle. Without those cells, no new pigment cells can be made so all new hair becomes gray.
Stress Management: What Can You Do About It
- Stress is a fact of life. A 2017 American Psychological Association survey found that a whopping 71% of respondents reported experiencing at least one symptom of stress over the past month. And stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic only made matters worse.
- Sometimes we stress over good things, like a long line at a brunch spot, a new job, an upcoming wedding or a new baby. And other times, its over not-so-good things like being sick, working too much or family drama.
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The Good News About Stress
Not all stress is bad, and the hormones that the body produces in response to stress aren’t, either. Their levels actually fluctuate throughout the day as you adapt to challenges such as waking up , getting stuck in traffic, or being surprised for your birthday.
Its also possible to manage stress by doing small things like deep breathing, taking a walk, listening to a meditation app, or even grabbing your childs fidget spinner to distract yourself from whatevers stressing you out. Any of these strategies can help short-circuit the bodys fight-or-flight response, stopping the flood of stress hormones from revving up your blood pressure and heart rate.
How Bad Stress Can Become Good Stress
Not all forms of bad stress can become good stress, but it is possible to change your perception of some of the stressors in your life. This shift can change your experience of stress.
The body reacts strongly to perceived threats. If you don’t perceive something as a threat, there is generally no threat-based stress response. If you perceive something as a challenge instead, the fear you would normally experience may turn into excitement and anticipation, or at least resolve. You can often make the shift in perception by:
- Focusing on the resources you have to meet the challenge
- Seeing the potential benefits of a situation
- Reminding yourself of your strengths
- Having a positive mindset
As you practice looking at threats as challenges more often, it becomes more automatic, and you experience more good stress and less bad stress.
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You May Experience Acne Breakouts Due To Stress
Does stressing out lead to breaking out? Lisa A. Garner, a dermatology professor, told WebMD, “When you already have acne and you get into a stressful situation, that seems to be when your acne really flares up.” Yes, as if you needed another thing to worry about, you can add pimples to your list. Two separate studies, cited by the health site, found that college students, for example, experienced a surge in acne right around academic testing time.
While the relation is clear, researchers are still trying to understand why this happens. One theory, noted by Dr. Garner, is that the cells that make sebum “have receptors for stress hormones.” Sebum along with bacteria and dead skin cells can then “clog the hair follicles, leading to a pimple or acne cyst.” Furthermore, when you are stressed out, you might be more prone to the nervous habit of picking your skin. And more picking/touching equals more acne so hands off!
Increased Sensitivity To Pain
Its well known that stress can cause physical tension, which can lead to painful headaches and neck and back pain. But stress can also affect how people experience pain, often causing an exaggerated response to an otherwise minor stimulus.
One study in children with recurring abdominal pain showed that stress reduced their tolerance for that pain, and in people with chronic pain, pain levels spike during periods of stress. Scientists think this heightened pain response might occur because stress can make the hormones that help people cope with painless effective.
Chen gives the example of a transgender patient who experienced debilitating back pain from a work injury, which resolved only after she shared her gender identity with her family.
This patient had the most profound back pain Id ever seen, and it lasted for years, with such an exaggerated pain response, Chen says. She had been hiding her transgender identity and had not been able to process that, and it was only after going through the transition that her pain completely resolved.
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How Stress Affects Men
Studies show that stress tends to affect men and women differently. Men are more prone than women to “mental stress,” specifically regarding work. Men dealing with chronic stress are less likely than women to take care of their symptoms. They’re less likely to lean on friends and family for help, and are less likely to prioritize quality sleep. Clearly men could learn a thing or two from women in this regard.
Hormones may be at play. While men and women release stress hormones in similar ways, there’s a big difference in how oxytocin is released in response. Oxytocin promotes nurturing feelings and feelings of well-being. And women receive it in much higher doses when stressed than men do. Oxytocin may encourage women to look for help from others by nurturing and befriending, whereas men are more likely to flee from their stress or lash out in response to it.
Men, Stress, and Sexual Health
Stressed-out men can bring their worried minds into the bedroom, where it causes problems. Men with chronic stress can build up too much cortisol, which can lead to a variety of sexual health problems, such as:
- Lower testosterone
Plasticity And The Brain: The Bodys Recovery System
Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, refers to the ways that neural pathways are able to re-form in the brain. Its true that these pathways like the one between the hippocampus and the amygdala can get severely damaged due to constant exposure to stress, but such changes are not necessarily permanent. While stress can negatively affect the brain, the brain and body can recover.
Young adults, especially, are able to recover from the effects of stress, according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . Age has a direct correlation with the reversibility of stress-related damage. Its much more difficult for older adults to regain or create new neural pathways than their younger counterparts.
Thats not to say all hope is lost for older adults. PNAS points out that interventions, or activities that combat stress wear-and-tear on the brain, are effective regardless of age. Interventions including activities like exercising regularly, socializing and finding purpose in life enable plasticity.
It can seem like stress is an inevitable part of life, but chronic stress can have real and significant consequences on the brain. Understanding these effects and how to combat them can help promote overall health.
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Do Women React To Stress Differently Than Men Do
Yes, studies show that women are more likely than men to experience symptoms of stress. Women who are stressed are more likely than men who are stressed to experience depression and anxiety.21 Experts do not fully know the reason for the differences, but it may be related to how mens and womens bodies process stress hormones. Long-term stress especially is more likely to cause problems with moods and anxiety in women.22
When Stress Is Actually Good For You
We rarely hear people say, “I’m really feeling stressed. Isn’t that great?” But if we didn’t have some stress in our livesthe “good stress” varietywe’d feel rudderless and unhappy. If we define stress as anything that alters our homeostasis, then good stress, in its many forms, is vital for a healthy life. Bad stress can even turn into good stress, and vice versa.
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The Effects Of Chronic Stress
Your nervous system isnt very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If youre super stressed over an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if youre facing a true life-or-death situation. And the more your emergency stress system is activated, the easier it becomes to trigger, making it harder to shut off.
If you tend to get stressed out frequently, like many of us in todays demanding world, your body may exist in a heightened state of stress most of the time. And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body. It can suppress your immune system, upset your digestive and reproductive systems, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, and speed up the aging process. It can even rewire the brain, leaving you more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems.
Health problems caused or exacerbated by stress include:
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Stress And The Function Of The Cardiovascular System
The existence of a positive association between stress and cardiovascular disease has been verified . Stress, whether acute or chronic, has a deleterious effect on the function of the cardiovascular system . The effects of stress on the cardiovascular system are not only stimulatory, but also inhibitory in nature . It can be postulated that stress causes autonomic nervous system activation and indirectly affects the function of the cardiovascular system . If these effects occur upon activation of the sympathetic nervous system, then it mainly results in an increase in heart rate, strength of contraction, vasodilation in the arteries of skeletal muscles, a narrowing of the veins, contraction of the arteries in the spleen and kidneys, and decreased sodium excretion by the kidneys . Sometimes, stress activates the parasympathetic nervous system . Specifically, if it leads to stimulation of the limbic system, it results in a decrease, or even a total stopping of the heart-beat, decreased contractility, reduction in the guidance of impulses by the heart stimulus-transmission network, peripheral vasodilatation, and a decline in blood pressure . Finally, stress can modulate vascular endothelial cell function and increase the risk of thrombosis and ischemia, as well as increase platelet aggregation .
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Take Care Of Yourself
When you are facing ongoing stress, it is particularly important to practice healthy self-care. Give yourself breaks to relax, follow a nutritious diet, get regular exercise, and find ways to protect your sleep.
Exercise, for example, has a wide range of positive health benefits, including reductions in perceived stress and anxiety. However, research also suggests that experiencing stress also makes it more difficult for people to stick to their usual physical activity routine.
If stress makes it difficult to stay motivated to exercise, look for ways to gradually make exercise a part of your routine. Set small goals, even if it’s 10 to 20 minutes of activity a day, and then gradually work your way up. You may find that over time, engaging in physical activity actually helps you better cope with your stress.
What Are The Signs Of Stress
How you might feel
If the stress is long-lasting, you may notice your sleep and memory are affected, your eating habits change, or you feel less inclined to exercise.
Some research has also linked long-term stress to gastrointestinal conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome or stomach ulcers, as well as conditions like cardiovascular disease.
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