What is Stress and Why Does it Happen?
Believe it or not, stress serves a very important purpose in human’s development as a species. Before modern times, humans would respond to dangerous situations with the “fight or flight” response. If someone faced a potentially dangerous situation that could cause physical or mental damage to themselves or a loved one, the fight or flight response would release hormones that would increase strength and speed, allowing them to fight more effectively or run more quickly.
Today, we do not regularly find ourselves in situations that require the fight or flight response, but that instinct still remains. Instead of using stress hormones for emergencies, they are now activated in somewhat trivial situations, like when we’re late for work or we’re stuck in traffic. With no real release for these hormones, the effects of the flight or fight response can last over long periods of time.
Stress affects everyone differently and it is normal to feel the effects of stress for a short period of time. But, chronic, long-lasting stress can be detrimental. Typical problematic symptoms include:
- Tension and irritability
- Anxiety and fear for the future
- Sadness and depression
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
How Can Stress Affect Your Health?
Stress and anxiety can directly cause health issues and can lead to behaviors that negatively impact your health. The most common health-related problems caused by stress include:
Heart Disease. People who frequently experience stress tend to have higher blood pressure. The stress hormone can release cholesterol and triglycerides directly into the blood stream, causing imbalances.
Asthma. Many studies have found that stress can worsen asthma symptoms, and in some cases, a parent’s stress could directly influence their child’s risk of developing asthma.
Obesity. Stress releases a hormone called cortisol. This hormone increases the amount of fat that is stored in the stomach area. Excess fat stored in the midsection poses greater long-term health risks than anywhere else on the body.
Headaches. When someone is stressed, muscles tense, leading to jaw clenching and neck stiffness, which can cause tension headaches. Studies have shown that migraines are also more likely in those who are chronically stressed.
Accelerated Aging. Studies have been done that compare the DNA of those who are under high stress with those who are not. Researchers found that in certain DNA sections, stress may have caused an additional 9 to 17 years of aging.
What Can You Do To Decrease Stress?
Even though stress is somewhat of an instinct, it can be controlled through positive lifestyle changes.
Get active. Any form of exercise and physical activity will release endorphins, which are natural chemicals that boost your mood and can even provide a sense of well-being. Since stress is a fight or flight response, using its hormones in a physical way can help them run their course.
Improve your diet. Consuming too much alcohol, caffeine, or smoking can actually decrease your ability to handle stress in the long run. Knowing you’re eating a balanced diet and taking care of yourself in general can put you in a positive mood.
Socialize. When you’re stressed, your natural reaction may be to hide away inside and avoid talking to anyone. But, humans are social beings and talking to friends and family can give you the feeling of support and may help you talk through what is bothering you.