With one in twelve Australians currently suffering from severe stress it has become increasingly important that we learn to reduce the negative effects of stress on our health and wellbeing.
Young people in particular are more prone to severe stress, which the Australian Psychological Association says is a major concern warranting further investigation.
This is a worry because prolonged stress not only impacts our physical health, it is a factor in many mental health conditions including anxiety disorders and depression.
People cope with stress differently, but the underlying physiology is the same for everyone. Understanding the physical response is the first step in managing stress.
Long and Short Term Effects
Short-term effects of stress may include muscle tension, churning gut, racing thoughts, irritability and increased heart rate. In the longer term prolonged stress can depress immune function and increase blood pressure.
This happens because the mechanism known as flight or fight allows us to draw on extra energy when we need it – in the short term. Left unchecked it can deplete our energy reserves leaving us physically and mentally exhausted.
The Physiology of Stress
Walter Cannon first described the stress response in 1915. He found that when human beings are faced with an event we perceive as threatening, our bodies switch to survival mode. This reaction, which involves a number of stress related hormones flooding the body, happens even before we have time to think about it.
Have you ever woken in the middle of the night from a nightmare or from a loud noise? Then you will know what the stress response feels like.
In a matter of moments of becoming aware of a potential threat – even before we know what it is - blood flow is re-directed away from non-essential functions to our arms and legs, giving us energy to run or fight. Our eyesight becomes sharper and our brain quickly looks for clues in the environment to help us deal with or escape from whatever is going on.
In most situations, once the stressful situation has passed, our bodies go back to normal, but with prolonged stress the adrenal glands keep pumping out the hormones, leading to exhaustion and fatigue.
If the stress continues our immune system can become compromised, and we are more disposed to becoming ill. Also, cortisol, one of the hormones associated with the stress response, creates a plaque-like substance that sticks to the arteries, restricting blood flow.
The Effects of Stress on the Brain
A certain level of stress can increase mental performance in an exam or job interview, however these positive effects only work in the short term.
In the long term stress can affect our ability to think clearly. This is because blood flow is directed away from the pre-frontal cortex (decision making function), to more primitive parts of the brain associated with survival.
Memory is also affected by stress. In situations where stress is prolonged, both long term and short term memory is diminished.
Coping with Stressful Situations
When we understand the mechanism behind the stress response, it allows us to counteract or minimize the long term physical effects.
This means acknowledging that even though we may not have much control over the external stessor – although we can think of making changes - we can control the way we react to our circumstances.
The flight or fight response is automatic, which means it is not within our conscious control. The relaxation response is.
The Relaxation Response
The relaxation response is the natural antidote to the stress response – the body’s way of bringing the organism back into balance. One of the best ways to trigger this response is through exercise and relaxation training.
In the short term it can also be triggered just by the way we breathe, or by refocusing the mind.
For example if we are stressing about an upcoming exam or job interview, we can become aware of the effects this worry is having on the body and the mind, and then make a conscious effort to relax by going for a long walk or taking a relaxing bath. Or by taking a deep breath.
Once learned, the relaxation response can become second nature. This requires practice in progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training or meditation.
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