Updated: May 5
What is Stress?
Stress is our body's response to the daily demands of life. We all are familiar with the dreaded deadline approaching to turn in an assignment, a vital project document, service/s offered to a client. All of us have experienced the haste in the mornings, we rush to get our kids dressed and ready for school—the seemingly unending commute to our office—the terrifying review with the boss. In this blog, let us explore more about stress. How and Why stress came to be, How it affects our bodies and How our own beliefs influence the outcomes of our lives.
The Origins of Stress
First, a little lesson in evolution. Evolution is the process by with a particular trait that is advantageous and assists in the survival of the individual is passed on to the later generations. And therefore, over-time characters that are disadvantageous disappear over time and generations to come. As proposed by Charles Darwin.
The chances of a trait to be passed on to later generations depend on the advantages and the trade-offs or costs associated with them. The costs related to stress or more formally stress-response are widely documented. On the other hand, it is also well understood that stress-response have provided unmatched survival advantages during early stages of human evolution, and even today, stress-response is needed in certain situations. All of us can come up with an example for similar conditions. We also refer to this as the Fight and Flight mechanism.
A similar stress response is seen in vertebrates. Fish, Birds and Reptiles all respond to stressful situations by increased secretions if epinephrine or glucocorticoids, which turn increase the blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugars and ultimately available energy to react to the threat that situation has presented.
We have heard stories of mothers or loved ones lifting immensely heavy objects to save their babies, kids, spouses and friends. This strength that came from seemingly nowhere is due to the surge of Epinephrine (Adrenaline) and Norepinephrine as part of the stress response.
Physiology of Stress
Our bodies are incredible at regulating themselves, the pH of blood, our blood pressure, heart rate, hormonal balance, and so on, this ability of our body to self-regulate is known as homeostasis. This homeostasis is crucial to proper and healthy functioning. During stress-response, there is an elevation of various biological functions and markers. Once the cause is dealt with, the body begins to come back to the initial states. It is well documented that stress is related to increased heart rates, blood pressure, blood sugar, growth hormone, epinephrine, norepinephrine, cortisol and gonadotrophin, to name a few. And therefore, stress is associated with being a contributing risk factor for many diseases such as Coronary Heart Disease, Cardiovascular Diseases, diabetes and obesity, to name a few major diseases. It is also established that our immune system is activated during stress response as it would be during an infection. Therefore stress is also associated with the weakened immune system making individuals more susceptible to common infections and autoimmune disorders. This is a simplification of the biological mechanisms of stress, to explore all the intricacies is beyond this blog.
Stress in Modern Era
Stress-response was designed to deal with immediate short-term situations that endangered survival or wellbeing of an individual. However, in our modern-day lives, most of us rarely encounter stressful situations that warrant such stress-response. It is important to remember that our stress-response is a crucial tool that helps us survive and avoid any immediate dangers that could risk our lives. Most modern-day stress is future paced. That is, we are stressed due to a deadline that is due in a week or a few days, to get to our workplaces in time. Although it is crucial to meet deadlines or be on time, none of these situations would benefit from the stress response explicitly. Though, it can be argued that a little stress is essential in the completion of these tasks and a last-minute surge of epinephrine could get you through a tight spot. Researchers and clinicians alike agree that a few lifestyle changes go a long way towards managing stress.
Stress and Productivity
Research suggests that moderate levels of stress produced optimal and best results. However, low levels of stress, contrary to what most would like to think, resulted in dropped levels of productivity and results. A possible explanation for this could be that individuals with low levels of stress got complacent with the task/s at hand. As expected high levels of stress, was detrimental towards productivity due to various reasons suggested with ranged from too much planning to being paralysed by fear.
Stress and Beliefs
Recent research has explored the role of beliefs in wellbeing and health of human beings. In research on hotel housekeepers, one group was educated that due to the nature of their work. They were informed that they burned extra calories and met the daily exercise recommendations. The other group was told nothing. Four weeks later, when the researchers returned and found the group that was educated about their daily exercise recommendations had lost weight and had improved health markers. Showing how beliefs impact outcomes. Similar results are observed with placebos as well. Therefore, beliefs are important and influential.
In her book, The Upside of Stress Dr Kelly McGonical has detailed how beliefs about stress led to very different rent outcomes. To summarise, the belief that stress is detrimental to health combined with mild to severe levels of stress resulted in worse outcomes of health. However, for similar levels of stress combined with the belief that stress was beneficial and enhancing the effects on health were not as adverse or non-existent. One mechanism that Dr McGonical suggests in her book is called the stress response. The stress response is the ratio of Cortisol to Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). DHEA is secreted by adrenal glands. However, higher quantities of DHEA was observed in individuals with positive beliefs about stress.
How to Manage and get Better at Stress
Lifestyle: Little changes go a long way in leading a healthy and happy life. As mentioned earlier, most of our stress is in our heads. Yet, our response is bodily. Go a walk, swim, cycling, dance or play music get physical. During our whole day, we experience many situations where we experience stress. Physical movement or exercise helps to vent the stress and tensions that have built up within yourself.
Make a Schedule: As simple as it sounds, most of us don't. Most of our days are just spontaneous and numb. We are on autopilot for most of our day and realise that we haven't finished anything that matters. Make a schedule and get your priorities on it. Importantly, gradually automate the process of scheduling and following it.
Personal Growth/Me Time: Start and end your day with something that brings you joy and pleasure. Activities such as learning something a skill that you always wanted to acquire, A book that has been on you shelf for months. Connect with a long lost friend. Play a video game, dance with your spouse or partner all are valid options. Be creative and find what you love.
If you believe that you may have chronic stress you can get help here.