Stress comes at us from all sides. Working, looking for work, paying our bills, taking care of our home and children, and juggling the myriad other responsibilities of life can take their toll. As you know, these are just a few of the many things that might create stress in your life.
When Stress Hurts
It’s important to realize that not all stress is bad. We need a certain amount of stress to keep us motivated and focused.
Unfortunately, however, many of us experience chronic stress. This is not just short-term stress that goes away once we solve a problem or get through a difficult meeting.
It’s the kind of stress from which we never get a break. It is always there, creating static in our brain and interfering with our bodies and our emotions.
How Stress Works
Our bodies and brains are closely intertwined. When we are under stress, our body’s nervous system responds. Essentially, it perceives stress as threatening, something to be feared. It wants to protect us.
Our fight-or-flight system is engaged.
Our nervous system does this by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Their job is to prepare the body to react to threats. Your breathing and heart rate speed up. Your muscles are tense, ready to spring to action.
If a fearful situation is short-lived, your nervous system will quickly recover and reach equilibrium. Unfortunately, chronic stress does not give the body a chance to recover. Our brain wants to protect us from chronic stress, so it keeps the stress hormone levels high.
Over time, though, this can lead to many lasting effects.
Anxiety is a common reaction to chronic stress. Our bodies feel anxious, and so do our minds, thanks to the way we are programmed to respond to threats.
With time, this sense of anxiety becomes constant. It is not something we can easily shake off.
To be at their healthiest, both mentally and physically, our bodies need opportunities to rest and relax. Physically, this is important to help our bodies recover from effort and exertion.
But stress can block this natural process. When our bodies aren’t able to recuperate, our immune system takes a toll. We get sick more often and more easily.
Fuzzy thinking is another common effect of stress. When your brain has so many urgent things vying for precious mental space, it can reach a point of overload. Trying to make a decision or figure out what you need to do next takes monumental effort.
As you can imagine, the effects of stress, such as the ones already described, can lead to depression. Without a chance to enjoy life, play, and nourish ourselves, a sense of hopelessness can set in.
Stress affects our entire body, including our circulatory system. Stress hormones keep our body on high alert. Part of being on high alert means that our heart works harder to keep oxygen flowing throughout our body. Over time, this can lead to hypertension and even an increased risk of a heart attack.
To add insult to injury, stress often leads to insomnia as well. Your mind is racing with all the things you need to get done. You can’t relax at all. Your ability to shut down your brain at night is compromised resulting in difficulty falling or staying asleep.
There are other physical and emotional effects of stress, but these are some of the key ones.