When stress is overwhelming or long-lasting, it can have a terrible impact on your mental and physical health.
Chronic stress can contribute to conditions such as:
- heart disease
- gastrointestinal problems
- sleep disorders
But when stress is not so severe—when it is manageable and occasional—it can be quite useful for responding to challenging situations and improving your overall health.
Your Fight-Or-Flight Response
What exactly is stress? Why do we experience it?
Stress is the body’s response to any demand placed upon it. It is the body’s way of preparing to meet a challenge.
It can be physical, like an injury or infection. It could be environmental, like extreme temperatures or loud noises. It may also be an emotional or psychological issue, such as relationship problems, interpersonal threats, or problems at work.
When you perceive a threat, your body kicks into gear, releasing hormones that prepare you to either fight the danger or run away from it. This is known as the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response is a survival mechanism that is hardwired into our animal bodies. It is an automatic and instinctive response to perceived danger. Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, you start to breathe more fully or quickly, and your muscles tense up, ready for action.
These changes give you the energy and strength you need in emergencies. But the fight-or-flight response shouldn’t be constantly activated. If stress persists beyond the immediate threat—or when there is no real threat—these changes can end up causing damage to your organs and tissues throughout your body.
Stress May Give Your Brain a Boost
This fight-or-flight response also stimulates key parts of the brain, which can lead to improved mental function.
In addition to fighting or fleeing, emergencies may necessitate quick reaction time and complex decision-making. The increased blood flow to the brain during a stress response can help improve these and other cognitive functions.
And when it’s not overwhelming, stress can be a good motivator. It can help you stay focused and on task. It can also be the spark that ignites creativity and innovation.
But if unmanaged stress becomes chronic or severe, it can lead to problems with learning and memory. It can also increase your risk for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and depression.
Stress May Help Protect You From Infections
Disease-causing germs can also incite your body’s stress response. To deal with this threat, stress also stimulates the production of interleukins, which are a type of protein that helps regulate your immune system.
These interleukins are also known as pro-inflammatory cytokines. Inflammation can help your body contain potentially dangerous invaders while also stimulating the repair of any damaged tissue.
But too much inflammation can be harmful. When interleukins are produced in excess (from persistent or severe stress), they can damage healthy tissue and organs, leading to conditions like heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes.
If you struggle to control your stress levels, consider reaching out to a therapist or mental health professional. They can provide you with tools and strategies for managing your stress in healthy ways.