Stress is nature’s way of saving your life

In an acute life-threatening situation, an almost magical and lighting-fast sequence of events is designed to deliver you from harms way: Release of adrenalin triggers the lungs to push massive amounts of oxygen into the blood stream, while the heart races to pump oxygen and nutrients to the muscles which respond instantly. In these moments we’re capable of superhuman speed, strength, and endurance. It is quite literally one of the wonders of nature.

Hopefully we escape the threat, at which time we return to a balanced state of rest and appreciate the gift of life. There is nothing like an imminent threat to our lives to make us appreciate the joy of living.

But what if the feeling of being under acute threat never leaves us and we live in a constant state of fear and stress? This is unfortunately the reality for most of us living in the 21st century world. The chase never ends and we never return to a balanced restful state. Maybe its worrying about the mortgage payment, a health problem, global warming, the state of the economy, or how we’re going to pay for those college tuition fees next year – our bodies treat psychological stress in the same way as an acute life threat and turn on the same powerful hormonal stress response.

So what happens and what does it mean for our health and happiness?

Basically we wallow continuously in a bath of stress hormones and the stress response becomes much more damaging that the original stress itself.

One really important point to understand is that one of the body’s stress responses is to shut down all non-essential functions and to focus only on the important functions to save your life. All other functions are temporarily suspended – so growth, tissue repair, and reproduction to name a few are shut down.

10 important consequences of stress

Here are 10 important consequences of stress:

  1. Reproductive functions are impacted
  2. The immune system is not doing its job, leaving the body wide open to attack
  3. We experience continuously elevated heart rates and blood pressure. Resulting damage to arteries means that in future stress situations the arteries don’t expand and your heart doesn’t get more blood. This can lead to heart attack.
  4. Unchecked stomach bacteria can cause painful peptic ulcers
  5. Structural damage can lead to spinal problems and acute pain
  6. We don’t sleep well and this leads to poor life choices and unhappiness
Stressed Girl

If that isn’t enough to get you concerned, here are a few other consequences that should stop you in your tracks:

7. Chronic stress can kill brain cells: Brain cells in stressed brains have branches that are dramatically smaller, and the effects are mainly in the part of the brain called the hypocampus which is the center of learning and memory functions. Chronic stress changes brain circuits so we lose the capacity to remember. Who among us can afford to lose our ability to think?

8. Chronic Stress can impact Unborn Children: Stress hormones from chronic stress in a mother’s blood can trigger a change in the nervous system of the fetus that can have lifelong impact on brain chemistry, capacity to learn, happiness, and, vulnerability to psychiatric conditions. You may be ok with dealing with your own stress – but is it OK to have it impact the future of your child? Note that mothers of young children are generally recognized as a highly stressed group. Balancing work, family, and child rearing, together with the fast pace of 21st century life is a recipe for continuous and unrelenting stress.

9. Chronic stress leads to unhappiness and depression: Apart from the health impacts, stress can make us feel plain miserable. Pleasure is linked to brain chemistry. When a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released in the brain, it binds to receptors signaling pleasure. Brains of individuals with low levels of stress have lots of dopamine, leading to happy and pleasurable feelings, while highly-stressed people have low levels of dopamine and feel exactly the opposite. The grass is not so green, food doesn’t taste so good, and life is not something to be savored.

10. Chronic Weight Gain: Researchers have showed that people with chronic levels of stress tend to accumulate weight around their bellies and that excess weight in this area has the most toxic effects on health. This is one of the reasons that weight loss is not always as simple as reducing caloric intake. Weight gain is often bound up in a complex mix of poor diet, stress, and unhappiness and all of these factors have to be addressed to be successful losing weight.

Now For An Amazing Stress Buster!

Sounds pretty bad right? So, what are we to do? The first thing to understand is that the goal isn’t to get rid of stress but rather to have the right kind of positive stress that causes us to grow and become healthier. We’ll be examining this concept and some great techniques to minimize chronic stress in upcoming articles (hint: its not as simple as going to yoga!). But for now I want to leave you with an amazing insight into a major cause of stress and a great Stress Buster!

A famous stress study called the Whitehall Study, tracked the stress of 28,000 public servants in the United Kingdom over a period of 40 years. One of the key findings was nothing short of astounding – that stress levels and chronic health conditions increased in an inverse proportion to level of importance. Leaders at the top of the ladder had very low stress, excellent health, and were generally very happy and content. Workers further down the ladder however had high levels of chronic stress, experienced many health problems, and were not so happy.

Wait – isn’t that the opposite of what you would think? Aren’t CEOs and other high-powered leaders supposed to have the highest levels of stress due to all that responsibility? It turns out that the answer is actually no – people at more senior levels feel much higher levels of self-determination and control whereas those further down the food chain feel controlled and at the whim of their superiors. They worry about criticism and about losing their jobs. It’s a high stress place to be.

What this means is that trying to do something that you love as a career, especially if you can have your own business and control your destiny, is not a bad thing to aim for. That’s not always easy though so another option is to find a hobby or extra curricular activity where you can be the leader and in control.  This is powerful stress-busting advice that can change your life!