We all know that stress is bad for us and this is something we get told very often. However, it’s all too easy to write this off as being a minor nuisance or frustration rather than anything to really worry about. We all get stressed from time to time, right?
In reality though, this is the wrong way to think about stress. While it is fairly common place, that is not to say that it isn’t serious. In fact, stress is incredibly serious and can cause severe problems both in the short term and long term.
Stress can shorten your lifespan. Ruin your enjoyment. Cause
serious illness. Shrink your brain. Hurt your performance. Ruin your
relationships. Cause impotence.
Do those sound like small matters?
To understand this better, it can help to look more closely at what precisely stress is. How it causes the problems it does and how and why you need to do everything you can to prevent and reduce it.
So What Exactly is Stress?
Stress is what we feel when we’re overworked, when we’re dreading something that’s about to happen or when we’re generally unable to relax and stay calm due to outside or inside factors influencing our thoughts.
But it actually goes beyond this. Stress is a basic physiological reaction that is designed to help us focus and survive. In itself it is not a bad thing and is actually rather adaptive. The problem is that it has been taken out of context, which means the positive effects become outweighed by the negative.
Essentially, stress is what causes the ‘fight or flight response’. This is a physiological response to perceived danger, designed to improve our chances of survival. If you were to see a lion for example, this would trigger a cascade of effects collectively resulting in the stress response.
This begins when we observe danger or experience fear. Increased activity in our brain,
causes the release of adrenaline, as well as dopamine, norepinephrine and
cortisol – our stress hormones. These then trigger a number of physiological
changes: increasing our heartrate, making us breathe more quickly and making us more acutely focussed on the potential threat.
A list of the symptoms should include:
- Increased heartrate
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Muscle contraction
- Tunnel vision
- Heightened sensitivity
- Increased blood viscosity
- Suppression of the pain response
- Suppression of the immune system
- Suppression of the digestive system
- Dilation of the pupils
- Dilation of the blood vessels
- Reduction in prefrontal cortex activity (temporo-hypofrontality)
In the short
term, this is good for us. In the short
term, these things
help us to evade danger and win combative situations. Increased muscle
tension makes us stronger. Increased
blood viscosity makes our blood more likely to clot in case of an injury. Dilated pupils let more light in
to improve our vision. Suppression of secondary functions means that more blood can be sent to the
muscles and the brain. Reduced pain means we can carry on fighting or running
In short, anything that can help you to survive is prioritized, while secondary functions are suppressed. The idea is that once we get to safety, we can then turn off this fight or flight response and instead enter the ‘rest and digest’ state in order to recover. Once the predator is gone, we can recover.
But the problem is that in our modern environments, predators aren’t the main problem. It’s rare these days for us to be chased, to get into a fight or to need to escape a forest fire.
What’s not so rare, is for our boss to shout at us and to tell us that we’re late for our deadline. It’s not rare for us to be in debt. It’s not rare for us to have marital problems.
And unfortunately, the brain interprets all these signals in just the same way: as threats. And this causes the same fight or flight response. But because these types of threats aren’t so easily resolved, this means we’ll often end up on heightened alert for a longer period of time.
This is also why stress causes impotence in men. If you are highly stressed, blood is sent everywhere except the genitals!
And this takes a tremendous toll on our bodies.
As you might
imagine: it is not good for you when your immune system and digestive system are
suppressed for days. It’s also not good for your brain to be flooded with
norepinephrine and cortisol. It’s not good for your heartrate to stay elevated, or your blood
pressure to stay high.
This is the problem with chronic stress as opposed to acute stress. And it’s the problem with heightened levels of stress, as opposed to the gentle, motivating force of ‘eustress’. We’ll look at all of this more in the long term, but suffice to say that the longer stress like this continues, the more you start to feel drained, malnourished, fatigued, ill and possibly eventually depressed.
How Stress Damages the Brain
When we are stressed, it effectively makes us less intelligent. This is due to the reduction in pre-frontal activity, which in turn is designed to make us more focussed and alert. Essentially, the pre-frontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for forward planning, creative thinking and other ‘high-order’ brain activity.
When you are being chased by a lion though, it is really not the time to be thinking about the meaning of life!
So shutting down this part of the brain and placing your focus on feedback from your senses makes much more sense.
Of course that’s not particularly useful in the workplace though: and this is why the stress response is so seriously unhelpful when we have to give a presentation, answer a question on the spot or go on a date. This is when we lose all articulation and start stammering and saying useless things.
Slightly longer-term is adrenal fatigue. This is what
happens when your brain has exhausted its supply of adrenaline and other stress
hormones. That might sound like a good thing but you actually need a little norepinephrine, dopamine and cortisol to stay motivated – and even to wake up in the morning! Adrenal fatigue leaves you listless, demotivated and potentially depressed. It can also cause what is known as ‘learned helplessness’ – a condition where you essentially completely give up because your brain has been conditioned to learn that any attempts to change its situation will be met with failure. Not good!
Worse, when you are highly stressed, it can lead to long term problems for your brain health. As we briefly mentioned: it can literally shrink your brain! Studies show that in the long term, it leads to structural changes that shrink the hippocampus and shrink grey matter – the all-important neural connections throughout the brain. Even a single, severe traumatic event can result in significant reductions in the medial PFC, anterior cingulate and subgenual regions of the brain. The effects of ‘cumulative adversity’ meanwhile, cause smaller volumes in the medial prefrontal cortex (the PFC), insular cortex and anterior cingulate regions.
These regions of the brain correspond with emotional control, decision- making, reasoning and self control.
In other words, the eventual result of stress is to leave you more reactionary, more depressive, more impulsive and less disciplined.
From here, every aspect of your life will start to see negative effects. But there are things you can do about it…
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