When you hear the word “stress,” you might connect it with unpleasant feelings. Stress is something we all experience, whether it’s from final exams, interviews or other obligations.
But stress isn’t a bad thing -- it has a lot of benefits that help us function on a day-to-day basis. Stress also helped our past ancestors survive, and it helps us live in our modern world.
We wouldn’t be where we are today without stress. It’s a reaction that informs us how to act and respond to certain situations.
While stress can be overwhelming at times, it can also be good for you.
Chemistry of Stress
A lot of different reactions occur in your mind and body when you experience stress. Your brain releases several signals that tell other parts of your body to produce hormones. The stress hormones flood your body and cause physical reactions that keep you in stress mode. This can be helpful in small doses for specific situations, but your body is not meant to experience stress around the clock.
How Stress Affects Your Brain
We know how stress feels because it puts our body in fight or flight mode. You might associate this response with adrenaline, and you'd be right. Adrenaline is one of the three chemicals involved when we are stressed.
Besides adrenaline, the other two chemicals are norepinephrine and cortisol. They inform whether your reaction should be to fight or flight. These are chemicals in your brain that make you feel stressed and act on these feelings.
The Brain Chemicals Involved in Stress
Adrenal glands produce stress hormones after your brain sends a message saying you’re experiencing a stressful situation. These hormones keep you alert, focused and ready to tackle the task at hand.
- Adrenaline: This hormone deals mainly with your immediate reactions to stress. These physical reactions can make your muscles tense, your breathing quicken and your heart beat stronger. You might also start to sweat.
- Norepinephrine: Increased awareness and intense focus are the hallmarks of this hormone. It can also cause your blood to flow to more crucial areas in your body such as your muscles and heart. You are more responsive to your surroundings so you can assess if you need to escape or prepare to defend yourself.
- Cortisol: This is a steroid hormone. You feel cortisol’s effects in a matter of seconds. Your amygdala recognizes a threat and signals the hypothalamus, the hypothalamus releases a hormone called the corticotropin-releasing hormone, or CRH, which signals the pituitary gland to release the adrenocorticotropic hormone or ACTH, which is the hormone that gets the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.
Cortisol can save your life in survival situations. It maintains fluid balance and blood pressure. However, if you're constantly stressed and your body always produces cortisol, then you can experience adverse effects. Cortisol can increase blood pressure and sugar, suppress the immune system and help contribute to obesity and acne.
History of Stress
Stress has helped us survive since the early humans walked the Earth.
When humans sense danger, our bodies go into stress mode. Early humans would probably go into that stress mode when they encountered a predator or when they were about to hunt an animal.
When the stress signals release the corresponding hormones, blood pressure rises and more oxygen gets to the lungs and blood. The physiological stress response prepares our muscles and cardiovascular systems to be prepared to run or fight with more strength and speed. This means that the early humans were prepared to run and fight more quickly for that short period, the same as we can today.
Another result of stress is its effect on the eyes. Stress gives you tunnel vision which forces you to focus on what's directly in front of you. This reaction causes humans to give all of their attention to the immediate threat.
Using these heightened senses and awareness, early humans could run away from predators or hunt down their next meal.
Why Stress Can Be Good For You
Stress isn’t all about helping you survive life or death scenarios. In modern times, our stresses usually aren’t as extreme as fighting off wild animals or hunting for food.
You benefit from stress in short term and long term ways. When you’re in a stressful moment, you’re more equipped to handle the situation because you’re in fight or flight mode. Over time, you can become used to dealing with stress and know how to handle yourself in stressful situations.
- Success: Eustress is a term for good stress. This kind of stress could be the push to help you succeed in certain situations like work deadlines. When you pair stress with a positive outlook instead of being seen as an impossible task, people can use their stress to achieve new goals.
- Work Life: While people might think of work as a primary stressor, know that everyone faces this. You can turn your stress into a motivational tool to help you achieve greater heights. You can build your self-confidence, and as you continue to solve new problems, you gain new skills and experience in handling situations. What stresses you out now might not even worry you in the slightest later on.
- Development: Stress can help with child development. Mothers who have average amounts of stress levels while they are pregnant benefit their children over time. At age two those children exhibited better motor and developmental skills than children whose mothers did not experience this average level of stress during pregnancy.
Benefits of Stress
Some of the benefits of stress help your body respond more quickly and more productively to certain situations. Stress has effects on your physiology that prepare you to face challenges with heightened senses, which can be advantageous to you in many circumstances.
Stress can improve your memory and make it clearer. This phenomenon takes place because stress increases your level of alertness during fight or flight situations. When you experience healthy amounts of stress, you have an easier time focusing, and therefore, a sharper memory. The temporary addition of stress to your brain can help your concentration and productivity.
Stress affects your body similarly to the way germs affect your immune system. Short bursts of stress help you handle future stressful situations, the same way that a flu shot helps you fight off the flu later on. If you experience stress for long periods of time, your memory becomes foggier and it's harder to concentrate, just like long-term exposure to higher concentrations of germs usually ends up making you sick. This concept also had a hand in how our emergency system of calling 9-1-1 was developed. When people are under severe amounts of stress, they are more likely to remember three numbers, rather than an entire 10-digit phone number.
The more you deal with stressful situations, the more you prepare yourself for future stress and learn how to manage it. While this isn’t about experiencing extreme situations over and over again, it can be helpful for normal stressful tasks that people deal with all the time; for example, taking tests or giving presentations at work.
As you continue to go through stressful situations, you become more used to how your body reacts and how you feel when you're stressed. When these feelings become more common, you can focus on the task at hand and work through your stress instead of letting it stop you from doing what you need to do.
Too much stress will hurt your immune system, but when you experience stress in healthy doses, it boosts your immune system and prepares your body to fight against infections, illnesses and injuries.
When you get sick, stress hormones start to fight your illness. These hormones produce chemicals called interleukins that give an extra boost to your immune system for a short period of time. This process occurs in the beginning stages of illness. As soon as your body senses a threat, it starts to fight whatever is hurting it. Stress helps your body by never giving the illness the chance to progress and get worse.
Stress keeps us safe because our amygdala automatically releases stress hormones any time when it senses something off. This reaction is a primitive trait that puts us on high alert. We sense a threat and our body is gearing up to deal with it. Stress hormones get us ready to fight the threat or run away from it as fast as possible.
This primitive urge was intended to keep us out of harm’s way from predators in the past, but now is also the method used to navigate modern situations. Stress can help us get out of the way of oncoming traffic and can also help with more common tasks like tackling a new project at work.
Life and Confidence
When challenges arise, you can ignore them or face them head on. Stress helps you decide to tackle the challenges. Trying new experiences or stepping out of our comfort zones would be even more difficult to initiate if not for stress.
Stress Is Momentary
Short bursts of stress are healthy and normal. When you recognize that you’re under stress, try to use it to your advantage and conquer the challenge.
How Much Stress is Too Much?
Stress is meant to be temporary. In those short moments, our brain signals our body to adjust so we can respond to the issue at hand.
Stressful moments aren’t meant to last for long periods of time. If you are experiencing too much prolonged stress, it can have negative effects on your health.
Some signs of too much stress are:
- Poor Health: Stress can affect various parts of your body. People who experience high stress are more susceptible to heart attacks and strokes because it raises blood sugar and blood pressure levels. It has been known to cause stomach cramping and other digestive issues. You could also suffer from back pain because your muscles have been tense for a long period. Further, the area in your brain meant for regulating emotions and self-control can suffer.
- Illness: If you have constant and ongoing stress, you’re more susceptible to common viruses because it is harder for your immune cells to detect and fight off the germs.
- Insomnia: Your stress is designed to keep you awake and alert. You won’t be able to sleep well when you’re in fight or flight mode. Chronic stress disrupts your regular sleep schedule and can make you feel more fatigued and irritable during the day.
- Headaches: Stress hormones can give you vascular headaches or migraines.
- Hair Loss: In highly stressful situations, people can develop a habit where they impulsively pull their hair out. This is a disorder called trichotillomania.
- Acne: Stress hormones can trigger acne outbreaks and other skin conditions.
- Weight gain: You crave sugar and fat when your body produces cortisol. In addition to this, your fat cells can enlarge and make your body hang on to more fat tissue.
- Problems at Your Job: Too much work-related stress reduces productivity and satisfaction with your job. It also promotes weaker communication and less motivation to succeed.
Signs that Stress Is Affecting Your Mental Health
Stress causes more than physical reactions and also affects your mental health.
Everyone responds to stress differently, but there are some signs you can look for to determine if you’re experiencing chronic stress and some of the negative side effects.
Your mental health can suffer if you have poor coping mechanisms for stress, such as:
- Substance Abuse: Using drugs or alcohol is an unhealthy and harmful way to deal with stress. It can also lead to more serious issues like addiction.
- Not Processing Feelings: You’re not allowing yourself to acknowledge your feelings. People tend to bottle up their issues. This mechanism doesn’t make problems go away or help you work through them. When you don’t recognize your frustration, anger or sadness, these negative emotions stack up and will lead to more stress.
- Avoiding Problems: Inability to deal with your problems can indicate you've been under a too much stress for too long. It begins to inhibit your problem-solving skills and leaves you landlocked. Getting started is usually the most difficult part of a new task; if you take the time to plan it out, visualize and organize it in smaller steps, you’ll probably have an easier time.
- Overworking Yourself: Another response to stress is excessive working. You feel like you can’t give yourself a break and have trouble allotting time in your day for personal time.
- Disorders: Prolonged stress can promote the development of depression, anxiety and other mood disorders to develop. Anxiety disorders can make you feel on edge – you are unable to concentrate or stop worrying. There are several kinds of anxiety disorders with different symptoms and stressors. Depressive disorders can disrupt your sleep schedule, affect your appetite and make you feel isolated and agitated. There are also a variety of depressive disorders with their own symptoms.
How Do I Manage My Stress?
You can manage your stress healthily and productively. Many tips involve taking a step back and analyzing how you perceive stress and the stressful situation.
Over time, stress becomes easier to manage and you become more able to handle the short periods of stress that are normal aspects of life.
- Realistic Expectations: If you’re feeling overwhelmed because you’ve taken on too much, learn how to say no. There’s nothing wrong with saying that you can’t manage another task at that moment. Look at your daily tasks and see which ones are necessary and which are unnecessary. People will understand if you explain that you don’t have the time to complete their task with the focus and work that it requires.
- Ask for Help: You don’t always have to take care of everything. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others and ask for help.
- Look Forward: Take some time out of your day to stop and think about tasks ahead. Visualize how you can tackle challenges in the best way possible. When you take the time to consider your options, you can choose the best plan.
- Small Steps: Organize your plan in small and achievable steps. As you finish each one, you’ll feel accomplished and will see that you are closer to achieving your goal. This practice helps with confidence and motivation. You can even create a physical checklist so you can have the satisfaction of crossing things off once you’ve completed them.
- Health: A healthy lifestyle with a nutritious diet and regular exercise will keep you energized and ready to face challenges. When you’re eating well and exercising often, you reduce the chance of feeling sluggish or sick. Relaxing techniques will benefit your heart and reduce your stress. Keeping up with friends and having a positive attitude can reduce your stress and make you happier. Don’t worry about the small things and it's okay if not everything is right all the time. When you realize you don't have to be in control of everything, your stress decreases.
- Enjoy Hobbies: Don't focus all of your energy into only accomplishing goals. Take time for activities that make you happy. Whether your interest is reading, gardening or photography, you need to set aside time for you.
- Communicate: Talk about your stress with others. Tell friends about your involved project at work or trying to keep up with the house while you have a cold. A little bit of venting can help you let off some steam and your friends will most likely have something to add, too. You’ll see that everyone deals with stress.
Sleep: In order for your body to function properly, you need to get regular amounts of sleep. It can be easy to get caught up with something and accidentally stay up too late. You don’t want to be groggy during the day, so setting an evening alarm can help you start your nightly routine on time.
Routines help your body recognize that it’s time to go to bed: low lighting and taking a hot shower before you go to bed are strong signals that will make you sleepy. Don’t drink stimulants at night because they make it harder for you to fall asleep. Ease off the screens, too. Computers, phones, and television all stimulate your brain and could lead to a less restful night. Sleeping in a cool, dark room for close to eight hours a night is a good way to ensure you get the rest you need.
- Constructive Criticism: Don’t expect everyone, including yourself, to be perfect all the time. Each person has their own unique talents and flaws. Remember that when you make a mistake, it’s a chance to change and grow from it.
Remember that you are human; you are not perfect and you will continue to learn and grow. Viewing stress as an asset and a tool can help you to continue growing and avoid the negative side effects of stress.