When one thinks of stress, they almost always think of it negatively. Stress is widely seen as a detriment to health that taxes a person’s heart, disrupts their sleep patterns and makes it seem like they’re holding the world up on their shoulders.
Biologically speaking, stress in the short term isn’t bad in and of itself. Simply put, it's an important and temporary bodily reaction triggered when changes in the environment are perceived as possible threats.
However, with many stressors like financial instability and job security being inherently long term, it is critical for individuals to recognize the signs of chronic long-term stress within their lives.
Stress occurs when the sympathetic nervous system is triggered by a change in the outside environment. As soon as the brain senses the first wisps of potentially threatening stimuli, it signals to the endocrine system to produce large amounts of adrenaline and cortisol. These two substances act as catalysts within the body, increasing heart rate and blood pressure while also expanding overall glucose usage to repair muscular tissue and enhance brain function. This contributes to the hyperalertness experienced in stressful situations, as well as muscle tension.
Once the perceived threat is removed, the endocrine system ceases to produce adrenaline and cortisol, the brain signals to the muscles to relax and breathing and heart rate return to normal. In the short term, this neurological reaction can be beneficial in many cases, from actual dangerous situations to last-minute cramming before a test.
That being said, long-term exposure to these stress chemicals can be detrimental for the body and the mind. According to the American Psychological Association, long-term stress can present itself through a number of problematic symptoms, including migraines, chronic pain, heart palpitations, insomnia and irritable bowel syndrome, along with a slew of other possible issues.
But stress doesn’t just affect the body. I cannot describe how many times I have become emotional, forgetful or moody during finals week or a particularly intense cycle of work. Increases in production of cortisol, particularly, have been linked to heightened risks of depression, anxiety and memory complications.
The body wasn’t made to be in a state of fight or flight for prolonged periods of time. While stress is an evolutionary necessity, after a while, it can and will muddy the waters of nearly all aspects of life. Speaking from personal experience, if it goes unchecked, it will absolutely affect one’s quality of life.
It’s important to not only understand the source of stress, but to also learn how to cope with that stress. Just as many people experience stress in a multitude of forms, people find relief from stress in equally varied ways.
While a 40-minute run or an hour in the weight room may boost my relaxation, exercise may simply be another stressor for someone else. There are plenty of generalized solutions for chronic stress that permeate the internet, but at the end of the day, to each their own. One person’s ideal relaxation technique may be uncomfortable or downright irritating for another.
If one does not have a lot of free time to wind down, simple breathing and mindfulness techniques can be of great use. High levels of sugar and trans fats have been linked to increased tension, so avoiding foods that are high in sugar, grease and caffeine can aid in minimizing stress levels.
While all humans experience and deal with stress, it is an annoyingly pervasive constant in our lives. Though it is neither a positive nor a negative, it is important to pay attention to the levels of stress that one is experiencing. Knowing the origin of stress and its effects on the body is the first step to truly knowing how to deal with it.