Stress

Stress

We live in an age when we no longer have to fear dying of any of the diseases that killed our ancestors in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Diphtheria, cholera, and scarlet fever are almost unheard of. Antibiotics have put an end to them. Today we are more likely to die of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Diseases that are either caused by or exacerbated by stress.

Stress is a condition that your brain creates when it believes you are in danger. It is a state of readiness for explosive action, preparing your body to face a life-threatening emergency. Now, if you are a primitive man, trying to defend yourself against a lion that wants to kill you, or even today, if you are hanging by your fingertips from a rock overhang that you are trying to climb, your body being able to take vigorous action could be a distinct advantage and maybe the difference between life and death.

To prepare you for vigorous action stress does a number of things to your body, which in the short term do no harm, but when you experience chronic stress for prolonged periods, is harmful. These things include mobilization of energy reserves resulting in high blood glucose levels which can cause diabetes and myopathy; increased cardiovascular tone leading to high blood pressure and arteriosclerosis; suppression of digestion resulting in the risk of ulcers and increased fat deposits; suppression of growth leading to dwarfism in children, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity; suppression of reproduction leading to infertility and loss of libido; enhanced immunity in the short term, but chronic stress depletes the immune system leading to increased risk of some infectious diseases; sharpening of cognition, alertness, and mood resulting in memory loss and loss of brain cells.

Chronic stress is the result of your brain finding it difficult to distinguish between a danger that needs every ounce of strength for you to survive and one where strength makes no difference to the outcome. If you find yourself stuck in traffic, late for a meeting, having money problems, or experiencing relationship difficulties, the ability to run a mile in three and a half minutes is not going to help you in the least, but your brain still prepares you to face this danger in the same way as if you were facing a lion. And whereas when you are fighting a lion, stress hormones will be pumping into your bloodstream only as long as the emergency lasts, job, or financial insecurity, or relationship difficulties could last a lifetime and your brain continues to fill your body with stress hormones preparing you for action against a physical foe.

So the bad news is that “Stress can wreak havoc with your metabolism, raise your blood pressure, burst your white blood cells, make you flatulent, ruin your sex life, and if that's not enough, possibly damage your brain.” 1 But the good news is that provided the stressor doesn’t amount to a total catastrophe where the only means of retaining your sanity is to deny the reality of the event to yourself, there are things you can do to prevent yourself from becoming stressed in the first place, or, if you do become stressed, mitigate the effects of stress on your functioning and wellbeing. You can prevent yourself from becoming stressed if you are able to change your beliefs about the stressor, to make the event itself unimportant for your continued existence.

If you are unable to do that, you can mitigate the effects of stress by finding some way of controlling the event, getting information that makes events more predictable, finding an outlet for your frustrations, and, finally, finding comfort in social support of people who care for you.

Chronic stress is most often a psychological disease, it arises from the way you view life, yourself, and the world around you; and as such, relief from it comes from changing the way you view life, yourself, and your relations with the world around you. You may be able to achieve this change yourself, or in collaboration with trusted friends or family, or you may need professional help to achieve peace of mind.

1 Sapolsky, R.. (2004). Managing Stress. In: Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. New York: W.H. Freeman. 385

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