Our bodies have instinctive responses to stress. Depending on the nature of the threat we perceive (perhaps a friend jumps out of a room to scare us as we walk by), a small region of the brain known as the hypothalamus prompts the body to release hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) into the blood stream. These stress hormones increase blood pressure, heart rate, and energy reserves. In addition, cortisol suppresses functions (growth, reproduction, digestion, etc.) that would not be required in such situations. Colloquially, this is known as the “fight-or-flight” response, an instinctive reaction that prepares the body to either subdue the threat or run from it.
Normally, the body’s stress hormones self-regulate: as the threat passes, the body’s hormonal levels return to their pre-threatened state. Humans are somewhat unique, however, in that psychological stress (such as work-related, familial, or financial problems) can cause the body to respond as if it were under a constant threat. This is known as chronic stress. Unlike normal fight-or-flight scenarios where stress hormones decrease naturally, chronic stress does not allow for stress hormones to dissipate. There is instead a constant low-level production of cortisol and adrenaline, which have negative long-term repercussions for your health. Depending on the individual, chronic stress can produce digestive problems, heart disease, weight gain, depression, and sleep problems.
Fortunately, there are ways to deal with chronic stress and reduce its effects. First, take an honest look at the stressors in your life: what worries you? Are most of your anxieties concentrated in any specific area, such as finances or marital problems? How do you normally react to situations that induce high levels of stress? While the body’s reaction to these situations is instinctive, you can learn to change how you respond psychologically (which, in turn, has positive physiological effects). First, do not neglect your personal health: eat a healthy diet, manage your weight, stay hydrated, and get adequate rest. When we’re worn down, stressors are likely to affect us more profoundly. Rather than respond to a stressful situation with anger or fear (in many cases these are our natural, instinctive responses), you may wish to explore meditation and relaxation techniques to simultaneously improve your personal health and reduce levels of stress hormones.
Also, don’t neglect your personal relationships: isolating ourselves from others when we’re dealing with stressful situations often has severe consequences for our personal health. Communicate regularly with friends and family. If you find that their presence does not help to alleviate your chronic stress, you may wish to explore the possibility of a therapist. Trained professionals may have insight that even your closest friends do not.