We all experience stress at some point, many on a daily basis. Some researchers suggest that occasional short term stress can be good for the body, however chronic stress causes many health problems.
The stress response, or “fight or flight” response evolved as survival skill which allowed people to immediately react to life threatening situations. This response was valuable during the times when humans were presented with these situations often, such as being attacked by a wild animal. However now the stress response is usually activated by non-life threatening events every day, such as work, relationship and traffic problems.
When someone perceives a stressful situation the amygdala (a part of the brain which processes emotions), instantly sends a danger signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus communicates with the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary functions such as respiratory rate, digestion, heart rate, etc.
Once the distress signal has been sent to the hypothalamus it activates the fight or flight response. As a result the body prepares to either fight the danger, or run away. This is done by diverting blood away from where it’s not needed (such as the digestive system) and towards where it is needed (such as the muscles in the arms and legs). Adrenaline is release causing the heart rate and breathing rate to increase. Digestion slows and the liver releases glucose for energy. These changes happen so fast that we’re barely aware of them.
The fight or flight response is extremely effective when there is an actual threat. Unfortunately many people experience stress daily, and in situations which are not life threatening. Many of us have experienced the effect stress can have on digestion when it causes indigestion or heartburn. Stress can slow the digestive system which may only cause mild problems initially, but when stress becomes ongoing (chronic) it can have more serious effects on your health.
Chronic stress is associated with diabetes, heart problems, digestive issues, hypertension and much more. However it’s not all bad news: recent studies indicate that some acute stress may actually be good for the body. Moderate stress that is overcome can make the body stronger and more able to manage stress in the future. This supports Richard Dienstbier’s theory of mental toughness (1989), which states that acute stress can make you mentally stronger when it’s manageable, and there’s recovery time in between.
Like anything, it’s about moderation. When stress becomes ongoing, it may have negative effects on your health. Stress is unavoidable for most people, but we can do many things to manage stress in a healthier way.