Experiencing stress is a natural part of the human condition. It’s your body’s response to a perceived threat or challenging situation. Temporary periods of stress are not detrimental to your health. It can offer benefits by increasing alertness and energy to meet competitive or confronting events.
Stress can present both internally (illness, mindset) or externally (social, environmental, diet) and may be triggered by our surroundings or unrealistic demands we place on ourselves. It becomes problematic when we experience a persistent state of elevated stress, known as chronic stress, and we are unable to physiologically return to a state of homeostasis (internal equilibrium.)
Some people appear to thrive in stressful situations, while others become quickly overwhelmed. This is due to some people possessing greater stress resilience and a better ability to recover through engagement of the rest-and-digest response.
Positive Vs. Negative Stress
Positive (Eustress) occurs in situations such as when working to meet a deadline, sitting an exam, or reacting to a dangerous situation. It can help boost energy, focus, and productivity, ultimately increasing your performance. A complete lack of stress can result in reduced motivation or achievement.
Negative (Distress) can be the result of excessive work expectations, conflict within interpersonal relationships, financial worries, or fatalities. These types of situations have the potential to impede or overwhelm our ability to cope, producing feelings of tension, anxiety, withdrawal, inability to decompress, or insomnia. Recognising a cumulative effect and engaging a resilience strategy is integral to preventing the tipping point.
Stress automatically triggers our fight-or-flight stress response, a physiological process that releases hormones throughout the body in preparation to take instant action against the perceived threat, either by standing your ground or running for safety.
The physiological process is controlled by the hypothalamus, your brain’s control centre, and regulated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The process activates our sympathetic nervous system, which signals our adrenal glands to release cortisol (primary stress hormone), epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These initiate a cascade of physiological changes to prepare you for a heightened response, which include an accelerated heart rate, respiratory rate and metabolism, and reprioritised blood-flow to your muscles and pupils.
Once the danger has passed, ideally, your parasympathetic nervous system engages, signalling your rest-and-digest response. Your cortisol levels drop, and your body resumes a relaxed state allowing you to feel calm again.
Chronic stress is characterised by prolonged activation of your HPA axis and continual high levels of cortisol. Long-term elevated levels of cortisol can have a damaging effect on our mind and body.
Cognitive Impact of Chronic stress
Structure, function, and even the size of your brain is impacted by chronic stress. It can lead to increased neuron activity in the amygdala (fear centre) or decreased neuron activity in the hippocampus (learning, memory, stress management centre.) Synaptic connections may be impaired, the prefrontal cortex (concentration, decision-making centre) may shrink, and neurogenesis, your brain cell creation process, is reduced.
Create Resilience Strategies
Equip yourself with the tools to build resilience. Learn to recognise the symptoms of stress so you can gain an all-encompassing view and identify your triggers such as:
- Emotional symptoms (depression, loneliness, anxiety, mood swings)
- Physical symptoms (low energy, headaches, nausea, insomnia, loss of sex drive, skin issues)
- Cognitive symptoms (constant worrying, racing thoughts, memory loss, difficulty concentrating, poor judgment)
- Behavioural symptoms (substance abuse, eating disorders, sleep disorders, withdrawal, anger.)