Stress helps keep us alive and out of danger. We’re designed to be on high alert most of the time—even when we’re not aware of it—scanning for potential threats and poising our bodies and minds to take action.
Our sympathetic nervous system takes over when we’re faced with a threat, real or imagined. It sends a cascade of hormones through us that escalate bodily functions, initiating our “flight or fight” response.
Three major hormones are released during a stress response and all are produced in the adrenal glands: adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol give us a surge of focused attention and energy. (It’s worth noting that scientific studies have proven that we can become addicted to stress in order to get the rush that comes with it.)
Additionally, cortisol “downregulates” body functions that aren’t crucial in the fight or flight moment—reducing or suppressing a response to a stimulus—including the reproductive, immune, digestive and growth systems.
If we’re chronically stressed due to work, relationships, overwhelming responsibilities, or witnessing too much violence on the news, among many other factors, our systems become imbalanced and illness can occur.
The American Institute of Stress reports as many as 75-90 percent of doctor visits are related to stress.
In a 2015 working paper, “The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States,” by Joel Goh of Harvard Business School and Stanford business professors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos A. Zenios, the researchers determined that workplace stress costs between $125 billion to $190 billion dollars a year. The greatest factors in these costs were high work demands, lack of insurance and work-family conflict.
Dr. Doris Rapp, in her bestselling book “Is This Your Child?” creates a simple but strong visual of how stress accumulates in the body. She refers to it as the “barrel effect.”
Imagine one big barrel inside your body. As you go through your day, the barrel fills with and empties of stress depending on events. When the barrel isn’t too full we are resilient and can handle new stressors, but if the barrel is full to overflowing, the slightest thing can set us off.
How can you tell if you’re overly stressed? For me, I find that I become irritable and have a short fuse. I also have a hard time sleeping, because my mind can’t relax.
Symptoms of being overly stressed include feeling unreasonably negative or anxious, as well as trouble with focus, memory and making decisions. You might experience a decreased sex drive, extreme mood swings, chronic agitation and depression. Severe headaches or migraines, acne, backaches, accelerated aging, chest discomfort, and poor digestion/elimination could also be signs.
It’s up to each of us to monitor and manage our stress levels. The following are several tools suggested by the American Psychological Association:
Exercise. Even a 20-minute walk, run, swim or dance session during stressful times can have an immediate effect.
Meditate. Like exercise, research has shown that even brief meditation can provide immediate benefits.
Pursue relaxing hobbies. Gardening, playing music, creating art, yoga and walking can all help calm the mind.
Stress is a part of life and our bodies are beautifully designed to deal with it. However, if stress has gone on for too long with no acknowledgement or relief, it’s time to take action and empty the barrel.