THE BLOG
01/22/2016 11:33 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2017

How Stress Affects Your Body

Every single one of us experiences stress. It's a fundamental part of life that we honestly couldn't live without.

Stress is your mind preparing to face challenge and is extremely beneficial in certain situations.

For example, if you were being chased by a tiger and the only way to survive was to think quickly and react immediately, being stressed would be a welcomed experience because the "fight or flight" state that stress places you in would heighten the senses.

Of course, most of us aren't getting chased by tigers very frequently and in everyday life stress can get out of hand and cause negative effects, this is the type of stress most of us refer to when we use the word.

So if stress is both good and bad for us I thought it would be important to answer a few questions:
  1. What Exactly is Stress?
  2. What Happens in the Body When We Experience Stress?
  3. What Can We Do to Deal With Stress When it Gets Out of Control?

Here's what I found...

What Exactly is Stress?

In a Q&A session for BeWell@Stanford, professor of biological sciences and neuroscience, Robert Sapolsky responds to the question

"What is stress and is it always bad?"

If you're dealing with a species that is not very fancy cognitively, a stressor is only about physical challenge. But by the time you're dealing with smart species, a stressor can also be the anticipation that you're going to be physically challenged.

He continues to say...

But stress isn't always bad. When it's the right amount, we love it; we pay good money to be stressed in that way -- by the right scary movie or roller coaster ride, for example. We call the right amount of stress "stimulation." And it tends to be a stressor that isn't too severe, doesn't last for too long, and is in the context of a safe setting.

You can check out this article here: BeWell@Standford

Let's break it down, stress is something we need. It keeps us moving forward and keeps us safe in many situations.

It only becomes a problem when it gets out of hand. Stress puts a pretty big toll on our bodies and can lead to anxiety, fatigue, depression, and just a general lack of energy.

What Happens in the Body When We Experience Stress?

Brooke Borel broke down what stress does to the body in a 2015 article titled "What Happens to Your Body When You Are Stresed" on the website Popular Science.

Here's a summary of what she said:

Upon seeing a threat, the nervous system sends a message to your brain. The message goes straight to your amygdala which is the part of the brain that handles decision-making and emotions. The amygdala sends a message to the hypothalamus to start producing a particular hormone. At this point your nervous system starts to release adrenaline while the hypothalamus starts to produce cortisol.

Cortisol and epinephrine enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body. Once in the body, these cortisol and epinephrine connect to the proteins on our organs and tissues that have been designed to receive them.

The cortisol boosts our blood sugar and the epinephrine makes the heart pound faster in major muscles.

You are now in fight or flight.

Check out the full article here.

Now for those of us who experience unnecessary stress multiple times per day, or even on a daily basis, this process will very quickly burn up energy leaving us less focused, and less capable for the day.

On that note, how do we respond to this? We know that stress can sometimes be a good thing but when it gets out of hand what are some of the strategies we can use to deal with it?

What Can We Do to Deal With Stress When it Gets Out of Control?

In an article titled "Tips for Better Stress Management" by Steve Bressert, Ph.D., he says:

For stressors that are uncontrollable, the key is to adapt your response to the needs of the situation and/or manage your cognitive or emotional responses in order to minimize stress. For example:

  • Remind yourself that you successfully have handled similar situations in the past.
  • Reassure yourself that you will be fine regardless of what happens.
  • Find some humor in the situation.
  • Reward yourself afterward with something enjoyable.

These are just some of the techniques he suggests, so be sure to check out the article here.

Your Quest:

For those of you who aren't familiar with the podcast, I always leave you with a small challenge that will help you utilize some of what you just learned and work towards building a better life. This post is no different. Here's the challenge:
  1. Write down 2 things you feel stressed about on a piece of paper.
  2. Take a picture of the list.
  3. Upload that picture to Instagram using #mytinyleaps.

You are currently at level 1. You need 200 experience points to reach level 2. This quest is worth 10 points.

Are you up for the challenge?

Thanks for reading and I'll see you in the next post.

This post was adapted from episode 14 of the podcast Tiny Leaps, Big Changes.

Resources:

The Science of Stress
Robert Sapolsky
https://bewell.stanford.edu/features/science-of-stress

What Happens to Your Body When You're Stressed
Brooke Borel
http://www.popsci.com/what-happens-body-when-stressed

Tips for Better Stress Management
Steve Bressert, Ph.D
http://psychcentral.com/lib/tips-for-better-managing-your-stress/