Do you have too much, too little or just the right amount of stress?
What is stress?
If you are alive, you experience stress. Stress is the natural reaction to something in our environment or in our selves. It helps us to cope. A certain level of stress is good. Too much can kill you.
When you become aware of danger, you either avoid it (which is not always possible) or find a way to cope with it. The primitive part of the brain functions FAST: You have a flight, fight or freeze reaction sometimes even before you become fully awake to the situation.
Threats come in many forms:
- Physical safety – walking down a dark road at night, violence when you have to get to work during a bus strike, floods and mudslides, crime, drugs and intimidation by gangs, domestic abuse, service delivery protests, childbirth, drunken drivers, xenophobic attacks, extreme weather conditions such as drought or snow, difficult work conditions and long work hours.
- Intellectual challenges – a new job, fear of change, writing exams, rapid developments in technology, education gaps or inadequate training in your job, lack of time to study.
- Emotional strength – lack of sleep because of a sick child, noisy neighbours and worry reduce emotional stability. People that suffered cruelty or neglect as children are insecure in new situations. Modern life puts pressure on us to be independent and achieve material success, so we do not ask for help when we need it or are ashamed of poverty. The death of a loved one, illness in the family, a handicapped household member, old age, divorce and losing your job – all affect your state of mind.
- Financial problems – debts, inability to pay school fees, transport, groceries, home repairs, suitable clothing. Big changes – like a new baby, a car crash, health problems, bond and rates payments on acquiring a house, funeral expenses, having a computer, cell phone or car stolen, losing a train ticket that has been paid in advance – all add up to stress.
What happens in your body?
You release chemicals, like adrenaline, that help you cope with the immediate “danger”:
- Your heart rate increases
- You breathe faster
- Your blood pressure goes up
This, in turn, moves more oxygen-rich blood to your brain and muscles:
- You think quickly (to defeat the danger)
- Your muscles are stronger (to perfom better)
- You have lots of energy (more glucose and fatty acids in the blood )
Everything else in your body shuts down. During an emergency, the brain releases other chemicals to stop unnecessary functions. And this is where the long-term damage of stress happens. Cortisol keeps blood pressure and blood sugar high if the danger does not last. This is fine, but what if the stress continues?
The hormone that brings down cortisol levels after a stressful time does not function if the threat is on-going. Some people see threat everywhere. Others cram their lives full of challenges.
For example, the so-called adrenaline junkies that do extreme sports or enthusiastically climb the corporate ladder. Some people choose to reduce certain normal functions (like reproductive health or cell growth. For example, some gymnasts, dancers, and jockeys do not want to gain weight or do not mind if they stop menstruating).
However, for most people it is not a matter of choice. Living circumstances are life-threatening (people that live in a war zone like Syria for years) or hard (the problems of clean water and child safety that a mother in a squatter camp solves daily) so that we are often on high alert.
Constant heightened flight/fight/freeze eventually creates a lifetime of stress.
This has serious consequences:
- Increased fatty acids in the blood can cause a heart-attack (This is known as the disease of people in high-powered job, especially when combined with lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet. However, ordinary people that suffer from on-going stress are also at risk.)
- The immune system is compromised. The body cannot defend itself against germs. This means you get sick. (Research shows that refugees, prisoners, groups after natural disasters like earthquakes and tidal waves, are likely to get diseases. Diseases are often blamed on lack of hygiene, but are equally caused by stress.)
- Brain functioning is damaged. The hippocampus (this is easy to remember – just picture a campus where hippos are playing) is the part of the brain where memories are stored. It also makes the hormone that stops cortisol. Too much cortisol damages this part of the brain and makes it less able to produce the hormone that reduces cortisol. Memory loss is the result!
An evil cycle in the hippocampus:
The good news
You CAN protect yourself against stress
- Do not take on tasks that are not essential to your job or private life.
- Think carefully about what really matters to you? Maybe you are trying to please people whose opinion you do not really value, or competing for a job you do not really want. Maybe you think it is important to buy a new car, not because you need it but because you want to impress somebody. Do you need the horror of debt?
- Do things that bring you joy. Crafts and handwork, recreational sport, art, gardening etc are therapeutic and reduces the feeling of being overburdened.
- Get enough sleep in a well-ventilated place. Do not sleep with earplugs while listening to music. Your body and your mind need “time-out.” Do not watch unpleasant movies until just before bedtime. It invades your subconscious and the flight-fight attitude continues.
- Brain cells can be grown. YES! It is true. By learning something new regularly, your brain forms cells that store the new information. You do not have to accept that forgetfulness is permanent.