Are you stressed?
‘Feeling anxious, on-edge, and worried most the time?
‘Constantly in fight-or-flight mode?
As a nation, we’re seriously stressed out, and it’s causing significant and lasting physical and mental health problems, as well as impacting relationships, our work life, and more.
From an evolutionary standpoint, stress was an expected reaction to extreme conditions or threats. But increasingly for modernly humans, stress is an unwelcomed and non-practical part of our daily lives.
In fact, due to the increased prevalence of news, advertising, external messages, social media, and more, we have higher levels of stress and anxiety than ever before. To illustrate that point, I read somewhere that we take in more information in a single day than most people 100 years processed in their entire lifetimes!
As we’ll find out in this blog, being continually stressed out not only robs you of your joy, zest for life, and motivation, but can cause some serious health problems.
What is stress?
It’s important to understand that stress isn’t a feeling or emotion, but a biological response, one of our body’s reactions to an external threat or condition. Our modern stress levels are tied to our primal fight or flight response, which helped keep our early ancestors alive.
When someone is faced with an external threat (perceived or real), stress levels skyrocket, which causes a variety of physical manifestations: cortisol floods the body, as well as norepinephrine and epinephrine, muscles tense, blood pressure increases, and more.
While that reaction served its purpose when a dinosaur was chasing you, we face very few real threats in modern society. But big life changes, perceived stressors, and an overload of (often negative) information are inciting that same fight-or-flight response in our daily lives, often with harmful consequences.
What are the statistics around stress in the U.S.?
The others are:
The economy (49%)
Family responsibilities (47%)
Personal health problems (46)
What are the health manifestations of too much stress?
1. Stress literally shrinks your brain!
Chronic stress drives up your cortisol levels, and research has found that high cortisol levels result in lower memory and visual procession. That’s because chronic stress actually shrinks the grey matter in your prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that helps with attention, self-control, and more.
Scientists have also found that stressful and traumatic events can kill newly formed neurons in the brain’s hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that monitors emotion, memory, and learning.
So, prolonged or extreme stress actually shrinks your brain and makes it more difficult to process certain information AND inhibits brain growth.
2. Stress alters how you process information.
When you are not in a state of high stress, you have better control of your thoughts, emotions, and, therefore, your actions.
That’s because in a normal (non-extreme stress) state, a person’s brain has only moderate levels of chemical messengers that ask the prefrontal cortex to take charge and perform high-level or complex thinking.
However, chronic stress (due to the changes in prefrontal cortex I documented above) means you have less control and weaker command over your thoughts, emotional state, and actions.
In this case, those chemical messengers flood the brain, activating the amygdala (threat system of the brain), which diverts from processing information and making high-level decisions.
3. Stress erodes your physical and mental health.
Studies show that ongoing stress can lead to increased levels of depression and anxiety. And that constant state of fight-or-flight can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When you experience chronic stress, the fear centers in the brain are constantly triggered, which puts the body in a prolonged heightened state of fight-or-flight.
That condition leads to higher levels of cortisol, as we’ve found, which can lead to issues with sleep, digestion, and a compromised immune system. Lastly, stress leads to higher levels of inflammation, which adversely affects your heart health.
4. Short-term physical effects of stress.
If you’re experiencing a lot of stress due to a one-time event or traumatic incident, like a divorce, job loss, health problem, etc. you may be experiencing some of the short-term health effects. Those include lack of sleep, headaches, muscle tension, fatigue, a higher heart rate, anxiety, an upset stomach, or more. However, those short-term affects usually lessen or subside as time goes on and you recover from that stressful event.
5. Long-term health effects of stress.
But if your stress is long-term or chronic, your body will suffer further health problems and issues. Research has shown that chronic, prolonged stress can cause gastrointestinal problems, obesity, and diabetes. There’s even a proven link between prolonged stress and instances of high blood pressure, strokes, and heart disease.
The good news is if that stress is a chronic and harmful facet of your life, there are plenty of highly effective tools and methods to calm down, relax, and get out of fight-or-flight mode.
My 3 quick, powerful tips for managing stress:
And you can look for my 10 tactics to lower your stress levels quickly and effectively in an upcoming blog!