Is stress really bad for you? – part 1

After reading this first paragraph, close your eyes for a moment. Bring to mind your biggest fear. Imagine yourself being in a situation where you have to cope with this fear. What does the scene look like? Who is there? What do you see? What do you smell? How do you feel? Take a couple of moments to really experience this. Now notice what is happening in your body.

Chances are your heart rate went up, your palms may have started to sweat, and you likely feel tense. Your body is not only on alert as soon as you see, smell or hear a threat, but even when you only imagine it. This “fight or flight-response” is an emergency reaction of the body. Within a split second of sensing a threat the adrenals produce adrenaline (nowadays called epinephrine) and cortisol, amongst others, that results in quickening of breathing and heart rate, an increase in blood pressure, constriction of blood vessels in many parts of the body, and widening of the pupils.

When the threat is over our body relaxes again. We take a couple of deep breaths and move on. Or at least that is how it works ideally. As humans – contrary to animals – we have the ability to learn from our mistakes and to plan for the future. However, we also worry about our problems all the time (ever seen a dog do that?). We replay past situations and agonize over future ones. We call this stress.

Stress is the feeling we have when we are under pressure, especially when we feel like we are not up for dealing with the situation. The stressor is the situation, thought or event that we respond to and that causes stress. In general, the more stressors we experience, the more stressed we feel.

Stress in itself is not necessarily bad for you – as I will discuss momentarily -, but if you are not aware of the fact that you are under stress, and if stress becomes chronic (even when you are aware of it), over time it can be deadly.

The cardiovascular system (the system that circulates blood through our body and that, simply put, maintains homeostasis) is particularly susceptible to stress. The raised blood pressure triggered by the fight-or-flight response can damage blood vessel walls when turned on long term, and can eventually cause problems from clogged arteries to heart attacks.

Chronic stress affects not only the heart, however. During the fight-or-flight response the body’s blood sugar levels rise. This gives us a critical energy boost, but over time it can increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. When we do not use this fuel to actually run away from a dangerous situation, the body stores the sugar as fat. It is therefore not just from “stress eating” that stressed people gain weight.

Stress also disrupts our immune system. It is not that long ago that scientists thought it wasn’t possible for psychological stress to affect the body’s response to infection, but now there is a lot of evidence that there is actually a link. Without going into details, it suffices to say that with a depleted immune system caused by too much cortisol in the body, we are more prone to getting sick. Have you ever noticed you often get a cold when you are under a lot of stress?

The good news is: we can do something to protect ourselves from the debilitating effects of stress. As it turns out, what harms us is our psychological response to our external circumstances, not the state of our environment, but of our mind. Have you noticed that when you have been feeling very stressed for a while and then go on a weekend get-away you don’t necessarily feel better? You are outwardly relaxing by a fireplace but on the inside you still feel the same? This is because you have only changed your environment but not they way you are thinking. In order to effectively reduce stress, we need to learn to control our mind, and that is something we can actually do.

Picture this: you are kayaking on a river and you unexpectedly find yourself at the top of a small waterfall. It’s the only way you can go, as there are steep rocks on either side of the river. Your heart rate will probably go up as your body prepares for the descent. But depending on how experienced of a kayaker you are, and whether you believe you have the skills to cope, your predominant emotion will be fear or excitement.

Excitement will trigger the sympathetic nervous system to a greater extent; your peripheral blood vessels widen and your heart works more efficiently, pumping oxygenated blood to your limbs and brain. You will perform better this way. It is the primordial state of the hunter closing in for the kill.

Fear, on the other hand, causes your body to go into damage control as it prepares for defeat. The heart beats less efficiently; less blood is being pumped around in the body. This impairs your performance and puts strain on the cardiovascular system. Your body senses it is being hunted and there is no escape.

In other words: when you think you can deal with a stressor your brain and body function more effectively, so you actually get the task done and no (physical) harm is done. However, when you think that you are not up for the task you will be – literally – paralyzed by fear, making you less efficient, putting more strain on your cardiovascular system, and damaging your body in the long run.

Psychologists call these contrasting responses “challenge” and “threat”. Usually, when we experience a challenge response we bounce back fairly quickly. Yet, people in a threat state take longer to recover.

Scientists at the University of California have found that simply changing how we think about our physical response to stress (are we excited or fearful?) can have a dramatic effect and will determine whether the stress will harm us (in the long run) or not.

In short, if we manage to change the way we think about stress, and see it as something positive, it will not have the same negative effects. We therefore need to learn to manage our mind, not our stressors. Changing the way we think is easier said than done, but very possible. In my next blog I will address the most effective way to – literally – change your brain, and to successfully manage stress without changing your outer circumstances.