It feels like the concept of ‘stress’ has been around forever. Linked as it is to the fight-or-flight response, surely our Paleolithic forebears experienced stress as they fled the fierce cave lion! But ‘stress’ as we know it today, as a word that describes a condition of psychological distress, has only been around since the 1930s. For all the column and screen inches now devoted to articles on stress, the New York Times, for example, didn’t publish a story about the subject until 1976.
Central to the concept of stress is homeostasis, our body’s self-regulating state of equilibrium. Environmental factors continually disrupt homeostasis, and the body works to keep a balance. Stress can be both a cause and a by-product of disrupted equilibrium.
Although a new-ish concept, there is no reason to dismiss ‘stress’ as a present-day affliction of our creation – a weakness in our soft, modern constitutions.
Plenty of scientific research links our levels of stress, how we manage stress and even how we perceive it, to our physical and mental health. But what actually happens in our bodies when we are ‘stressed’? The simple explanation is that our brain triggers the release of several hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones increase our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, metabolism and muscle tension.
Scientists agree that short-term stress can be beneficial. The sharp spike in adrenalin and cortisol that fuels the fight-or-flight response helps us during a dangerous or challenging event. It can help us deal with emergencies, make changes and power our performance. When the stressful situation passes, our brain stops producing the hormones and our body returns to normal.
But what happens if the brain doesn’t send that message, and our body continues to produce the adrenalin and cortisol over a long period of time?
How long-term stress affects us
What ongoing, unresolved stress means for our physical and mental health continues to be the subject of much research. Cortisol has been shown to weaken the activity of the immune system, which is why it’s believed stress can make us sick.
Women wishing to become pregnant can be thwarted by stress in several ways. Stress can delay ovulation by suppressing certain hormones, leading to irregular periods; it may affect erectile function in men; and it can cause intimacy problems in a relationship.
There is a raft of other health problems that have been linked to stress, including headaches, arthritis, anxiety and skin conditions to name a few.
So next time you hear yourself saying you’re stressed, stop and pay attention. Your body is telling you it needs to find its equilibrium, and it’s going to need your help.
Take our stress quiz today and compare your stress levels to the rest of Australia.
References available on request