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Stressed Out: The Behavior and Biology of Stress
Ever since you lost your job, your stomach is in knots. It feels like you have a big interview approaching, but there is none. You aren’t sleeping well at night, waking up every couple of hours for no particular reason. And in the morning, you don’t feel rested. Your lower back hurts periodically and you’ve been getting sick more often than your friends have this season. (And speaking of your friends, they’re getting frustrated by your escalating moodiness.) You’re starting to wonder what’s wrong with you!
Technically, you’re not suffering from any major disease, but you have fallen victim to what an increasing number of people are suffering from these days – chronic stress. Though the word is thrown around a lot these days for obvious reasons, the reality is that stress can become a serious physiological and psychological problem if left untreated over the long term. Though the stress response actually serves a very important purpose, both evolutionarily and in the present day, a problem develops when feelings of stress become chronic – longstanding and unrelenting.
Feeling stressed all the time can make you depressed, cause weight gain, heart disease, memory loss, and sleep problems. It can interfere with sexual pleasure and may affect fertility. The following is a portrait of stress and its effects on various systems in the body, which can in turn affect your behavior and health. Knowing what stress does to your body is a first step in beginning to loosen its grip.
Stress is Helpful; The Problem is Chronic Stress
When our prehistoric ancestors encountered a threat in the wild, the brain needed to react very quickly to make split−second decisions about the best course of action to take – whether to stay and fight or flee. This acute “fight or flight” stress response was critical back in prehistoric times, just as it can be today under certain circumstances (think about encountering a life−threatening situation on a highway – you would need the same gut−level mechanism to decide on an appropriate reaction).
Stress becomes a problem rather than a life−saving response when the brain is deluged with stimuli that it perceives as repeated threats over a long period of time. And this is when stress morphs from an acute response to a specific threatening situation to chronic, a generalized feeling that the daily pressures of life constitute a threat, thus leading to many of the health concerns described above. Work, money, marital and health problems, and the pressures of parenthood are all perceived by the brain as significant stressors, and all elicit the stress response which affects both body and mind. Stressors include any stimulus that triggers the stress reaction, from the physical (for example, a car accident) to the emotional/psychological (e.g., a divorce or serious health problem).
What happens physiologically during this reaction? The stress response is governed by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which takes care of the many bodily processes that are “subconscious” or outside of conscious control. This system is charged with increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar, and suppressing the digestive, reproductive, and immune systems – in short, readying the body to pour its resources into reaction, and rather than wasting valuable energy on extraneous activities like ovulation and digestion.
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