We often complain that we don’t get what we want. Sometimes, we get what we didn’t ask for. Stress is one of those things. It is unfortunately a part of our lives. Many people tell me that they want a stress-free life. If that were possible, I would be the first one in line.
The changes that occur in our bodies in response to stress is called a stress-response. The purpose of a stress response is to prepare the body and mind to take appropriate action in the moment. It increases the blood flow and blood pressure. The heart pumps harder, and breathing is heavier to provide more oxygen to the body to meet the demand.
Stress response helped our ancestors. It helps a predator to focus attention and gaze on the prey before charging. It also helps the prey to quickly evaluate its options for a quick escape. Once the action is over – usually within a few minutes, the predator goes about lazing or wandering around. The prey happily grazes completely relaxed. The stress response lasts only a brief period, serves its purpose, and the body returns to its baseline. Waters are calm again. Stress has served an adaptive function to prepare the predator to attack and the prey to escape – a matter of life and death. Sometimes the predator wins and sometimes the prey escapes successfully. The law of nature prevails.
In modern times, instead of lasting a short time to prepare the body, stress-response tends to persist. We worry not only about the existing stressors and immediate threats but also about potential stressors that don’t even exist and may never materialize. Our bodies cannot tell the difference between real and “imagined” stress. We worry about jobs, challenges we must face the next day – exams, job interviews, ten things on our to-do list and so on. The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in countless worries and uncertainties in our lives.
While short term stress can be healthy and adaptive, it can also create a huge impact on our bodies and minds in the long run. An example is stress due to severe trauma such as violence and natural disasters. On the other hand, chronic stress can be unhealthy and is potentially harmful. The body prepares for the immediate threat but is unable to return to the baseline when we are constantly facing a stressful trigger. Our bodies do not get an opportunity to recover from the situation, which can have negative consequences on our health. It can pose health problems and even worsen preexisting medical conditions such as blood pressure, diabetes, eczema, etc. It is important to learn ways to prevent stress and develop strategies to cope with stress in our daily lives.
In our next blog post, I will discuss healthy vs unhealthy stress and how stress affects our bodies.
By Vasudev N Makhija, MD, DLFAPA
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