What is stress?

Stress is a bodily reaction to threats and is also known as the fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response is a hard-wired reaction to threats in the environment and is marked by physiological changes that help prepare the body to rise to the challenge presented. This response was first studied in the early 1900s by American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon, but humans and animals have been equipped with this survival response since the beginning of time.

To understand this response, let’s think about the threats that cavemen experienced in their environment. For example, a caveman may come across a woolly mammoth that is ready to attack. In this situation, the caveman has two choices to survive: fight the woolly mammoth (fight) or run away (flight). In either case, the fight-or-flight response can help the caveman react quickly to help him have a better chance of survival.

To prepare for either fight or flight, several things happen in the body. First, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in and quickly releases chemicals including nor-epinephrine and epinephrine. These chemicals begin several physiological changes that will help the body fight harder or run faster. Here are some of the changes that one will experience in times of high stress:

  • Breathing quickens to take in more oxygen

  • Heart rate and blood pressure increase to pump oxygen and blood sugar quickly to the muscles and brain

  • The digestive system slows down to provide more physical resources to other areas

  • Pupils dilate to see the threat better

  • Muscles tense to provide more speed and strength

These are only a few of the many physiological changes that help prepare the body to take action. When faced with a threat to our survival, this bodily reaction can help us to react as fast as possible. In today’s modern society, we do not have as much concern about attacks from predators.

However, we still have some threats in which the fight-or-flight reaction protects us. For instance, imagine a woman walking down the sidewalk when suddenly a driver falls asleep at the wheel and drives up on the sidewalk heading directly at the person walking. The fight-or-flight response will kick in, so the woman walking can quickly recognize the danger and get out of the way.

Threats of life or death are not the only situations in which a stress response is healthy. Some stress can help us perform better on tasks such as giving a speech, playing in a basketball game, or competing in a spelling bee. A small amount of stress helps give us energy, strength, and quick reactions, which can aid in our path to success.

When is stress a bad thing?

While some stress can be helpful, too much stress or stress at inappropriate times can be detrimental. So what do we mean when we talk about stress at inappropriate times? Well, we have discussed that while we are not often faced with predators in our modern society there are still some situations in which we must fight or flee. However, most of our modern stressors cannot be handled with these two options. For example, getting stressed during a traffic jam is not going to aid in survival: there is no need to fight and no way to flee the situation. In this situation, a quick reaction is not needed; so, instead of helping us, the stress is damaging.

Most of our daily stressors do not involve fighting or running away: we are stressed with things such as work responsibilities, keeping a tidy house, paying the bills, or caring for children. So why is this a problem? Well, despite the differences in most of our frequent stressors from the stressors that require fight-or-flight, our body still reacts the same way: our muscles tense, our heart rate increases, and so on. However, without releasing the tension through fighting or fleeing, the stress remains in our bodies. With frequent exposure to stressors, stress builds up. In some cases, our fight-or-flight response can become overactive and stay just below the surface, preparing us to react at any time and making us hyperaware of any possible threats.

How stress affects one’s health

The buildup of stress can be detrimental to both one’s physical and mental health. The changes in the body that help prepare it to fight or flee are helpful in the short term, but these same physiological reactions can be damaging when experienced chronically. For instance, long-term exposure to stress can lead to health problems such as high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, digestive problems, sleep problems, chronic pain, and fertility issues, to name a few. Stress can also affect one’s mental health such as contributing to frustration and agitation, depression, and anxiety disorders as well as possibly leading to suicide. Beyond these dangerous health issues, chronic stress can interfere with one’s productivity and happiness in life. Therefore, it is important to keep in control of stress and practice stress reduction.

How much stress is too much?

The amount of stress that is unhealthy is different for everyone. Some people handle a lot of stress and responsibilities well and even thrive on them, while others feel overwhelmed and beat down. However, if stress is leading to physical or mental ailments, causing one to use unhealthy means of coping such as alcohol or drugs, or negatively impacts one’s life, one’s stress level may be too high.

Here are some common signs of too much stress to look out for:

  • Irritability and moodiness

  • Frequent stomach aches, headaches, or nausea

  • Chest pains or rapid heartbeat

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Eating too much or too little

  • Using drugs or alcohol to relax

  • Feeling overwhelmed

  • Depression

  • Constant worrying

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Loss of sex drive

Difference between stress and anxiety stress and anxiety are often used interchangeably and can have similar physical sensations and negative health effects. However, they are slightly different. Stress is the bodily reaction when faced with a threat, whether it be fleeing from danger or preparing for an exam. Anxiety is apprehension or uneasiness when there is no immediate threat. As an example, let’s think back to the woman walking down the sidewalk when the car suddenly drives onto the sidewalk. The woman was facing a threat and almost immediately felt stress rush over her and reacted by jumping out of the way. Now, let’s imagine that the same woman wakes up the next morning and begins her walk to work. This time, the woman is feeling alert, looking at every car passing. She feels her heart beating and is having trouble breathing.

She is even fearful. In this instance, there is no car coming toward her. Her body is experiencing symptoms of stress without a true threat present. This is anxiety. Anxiety is experiencing feelings of tension and uneasiness without a threat present or can even be fearing experiencing the physical symptoms of stress. Also, sometimes people can experience anxiety without being able to explain where the anxiety is rooted. With no specific threat, anxiety can be more difficult to pinpoint and deal with.

While stress and anxiety differ, the experience and effects are similar and both are important to recognize and reduce. Both anxiety and stress overload can be damaging to both our bodies and minds and can inhibit one from fully experiencing life. Fortunately, there are many ways to better deal with our stressors to reduce the negative effects of too much stress. In this course, we will learn several ways in which you can better manage your stress and anxiety and help you to live a more enjoyable and productive life.