Why do we get stressed and why is it so damaging?


Stress is designed to help us get out of physical danger.  When we feel threatened, a part of our brain called the amygdala sets off an alarm bell which triggers the “fight or flight” response of our nervous system making us ready to respond.   Our blood is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, as well as our respiration. This allows us to transport energy to our muscles quickly so we can 'act fast'. While this heightened state of stress once helped us with the physical threat of, say, a sabre toothed tiger, it does little to help us with today's worries, like when a professor calls on us in class. But the stress response is the same.

Stress stops the normal functioning of our body.  The body assumes there’s a physical threat at hand so it channels energy into getting out of immediate danger. To do this, it shuts down longer term projects which are taking up energy. Our digestive processes, immune system, growth and reproductive processes are inhibited (no time for eating or playing when we’re being chased). 

A bit of stress in short doses is useful in improving our memory and enhancing performance. In the short term, we need to keep this fight-or-flight response under control to be effective in our work. However, too much, too regularly, is damaging to our mental and physical well-being. It can lead to stomach ulcers, heart problems, illnesses or lowered energy.   Most situations benefit from a calm, rational, controlled and socially sensitive approach.

There are 3 main components of Stress:

Physical Components of Stress

         Increased heart and respiration rate

         Blood flow directed away from the GI system and toward major muscle groups

         Increased muscle tension

         Pupils dilate to see better

         Blood vessels constrict in order to conserve blood in case of injury

         Adrenaline is pumped into the body for more energy


Cognitive (Thoughts) Components of Stress:

         Excessive preoccupation with a threatening situation or person

         Repeatedly obsess about an upsetting event

         Negative thoughts and self-defeating beliefs (“This is horrible”, “I’m not good enough”, “I’m going to fail”, “I’m going to go crazy”)


Emotional Components of Stress

         Being afraid (including to make decisions)

         Feeling anxious (tense, nervous, jumpy, unable to relax)

         Lack of motivation

         Bored, inattentive

         Feeling hostile (anger at minor things, irritable)


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