Stress and Your Body
Most of us have experienced stress, either acute or chronic, at some point in our lives. One in four Americans say they’ve experienced a stressful event in the past month, while more than half report dealing with a stressful event in the past year.
You know what it feels like to be stressed - overwhelmed, anxious, worked-up, unable to stop your brain from churning - but do you know how stress affects your body?
When you encounter a real or perceived threat, your hypothalamus, a small region at the base of your brain, sets off a combination of nerve and hormonal signals. These prompt your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the most important stress hormone, curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation.
How you react to a stressful environment is different from anyone else. Your reaction is affected by factors including your genes (some people have overactive or under-active stress responses because of their genes) and life experiences (for example, whether you’ve experienced the same or a similar experience before.) People who have suffered trauma, for example childhood abuse, are more likely to have strong responses to stress. The same is true of crime victims, first responders, and members of the military who have seen active combat.
Think about it - do you have some friends who are able to stay laid-back and easygoing, even in times of stress, while others overreact to the slightest thing? I know I do, and that’s strong evidence that all of us respond to stress in individual ways. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes, and have normal, healthy responses to stress.
Now, stressful events are a fact of life - as much as we try to avoid them, eventually we’ll be caught up in another stressful event. You may be caught in a stressful situation right now that’s beyond your power to change. What you can do is take steps to manage the impact that stressful events have on you. You can learn to identify what makes you feel stressed and how to take care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally in the face of stressful situations. That way, the next time you’re faced with a stressful situation, you’ll be able to stay calm and carry on with what you’re doing.