It is likely that the most universal symptom of the year 2020 has been stress. Prolonged, seemingly unrelenting stress seems to be the new norm. But don’t give up. Though these times are stressful and exhausting, chronic stress can be severely detrimental to physical health and there are ways to effectively combat its effects.
Stress is a natural psychological and physiological response meant to help us escape dangerous situations, like coming across a saber-toothed cat while foraging. The stress response tells us to prioritize escaping that life-threatening kitty over harvesting that patch of mushrooms. This is acute stress and it uses the body’s stress response in the way it was designed.
These situations are far less common in today’s human experience. What is more common are things like perpetual emails, bountiful, tense political exchange and unremitting expenses. These are not as simple to escape. You can hurl your cellphone into the sea, but your bills and emails will still be there. Other long-term or potentially lifelong situations like poverty, discrimination and unhealthy relationships also cause chronic stress.
Stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis, or HPA axis. It begins in the limbic system which is responsible for many automatic functions. The hypothalamus then releases hormones that spark a chain of other hormone releases. This starts in the pituitary gland and continues in the adrenal gland.
Adrenaline and cortisol are sent into the bloodstream, which triggers the flight-or-fight response and causes physiological effects like increased blood sugar and blood flow to the muscles and increased metabolic activity. Similar to a car’s sport mode, but for the body.
Chronic, ongoing stress leaves the body struggling to return to normal function. It has been shown to create constant high levels of cortisol, almost as if the HPA axis never stops. It can also cause cortisol levels to dip lower than usual after a stressful event, which isn’t good either.
This drains your body’s energy which can weaken the immune system. Cortisol works to give your muscles extra glucose, but it also stops your body from making as many white blood cells, inhibiting it from recuperating the immune system.
A 1998 study tracked 11 dental students who volunteered to have their mouths biopsied, once during summer vacation and later during exam week. It found that during the stressful exam week, the students’ mouths took on average three days longer to heal.
Chronic stress can advance the aging process. DNA replicates throughout the lifespan and after a while, the protective ends on the chromosomes called telomeres become worn and frayed. Stress accelerates this. Shorter, frayed telomeres results in higher incidences of errors when copying genes, which increases risk of disease.
The trouble is that sometimes we have no control over our stressors, but we can lower our stress response through behavior and techniques like meditation or relaxation therapy.
Studies have shown that even changing your perception of stress can change your response to it.
In one study of stressed medical trainees participants who thought of stressors as a challenge they had the resources to meet had a less severe stress response than those who thought of stressors as a threat in which the demands outweighed their resources.
A 2013 study sampled 800 older adults with high stress and found that those who reported helping others with tasks like yard work or childcare had mortality rates on par with older adults experiencing low stress. Those who did not report helping others had higher mortality rates.
It may be hard or even impossible to completely rid ourselves of chronic stress, but science shows that the health benefits reaped by taking action to lower stress levels is well worth the effort.
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