Imagine it: you are behind a curtain waiting for the moment it will open and present an empty stage and microphone, lights blind you, and an audience of hundreds of eager ears waiting for your voice to fill up the room. Your heart starts racing, your breathing is shallow or you might even hold your breath, you might feel sweaty or cold, your eyes widen, and your stomach starts doing things you really wish it wouldn’t.
Notice how these are all physical symptoms. Yet the only physical thing you are doing is standing upright and moving your jaw up and down. Why all this excess drama from the body?
The body was made to interpret any threat, both physical and emotional threats the same way – as though they were all physical threats. So your body will experience the same symptoms, maybe just on a slightly different scale, whether you are about to be attacked by a tiger, or about to speak on stage in front of a huge audience.
So any type of threat, whether real or imagined will send a trigger switch in your brain that leads you into the physical stress response. Your body goes from relaxation mode, scientifically called parasympathetic dominance, into stress mode, AKA sympathetic dominance. During this shift, your brain releases a bunch of stress hormones, including some you’ve probably heard of: epinephrine (AKA adrenaline) and cortisol.
These changes lead to the physical symptoms we all know, like racing heart, shallow breathing, and digestion changes. In fact, your digestion comes to a standstill during the stress response, because it takes a lot of energy to be digesting when you really could use that energy to run from the tiger – whether or not it’s there.
While these are symptoms we can feel, there are other changes going on during the stress response we can’t sense. Some of the invisible changes include elevated blood sugar, because that extra sugar can be used for quick energy while fighting or fleeing; suppression of the immune system; impaired memory; and metabolic changes that tell the body to store more fat around the belly!
Now before you freak out at your body’s stress response, know that it’s actually a brilliant design in response to threats in nature – which typically only last a few minutes at a time before returning to a carefree baseline. We evolved with such physical threats like chasing down our food or running in order not to become food, that nature gave us about two to three minutes to either get away or make the kill.
The stress response described above works perfectly in that amount of time. So perfectly that we are all here today without any worries about being attacked by tigers, and no need to go out hunting for dinner tonight.
The problem most of us face today is that we have stresses that were completely alien to the ones our bodies evolved with. Our stresses now are things like speaking in front of crowds, getting all your desk work done on time, financial concerns, not having enough time in the day, etc. Basically things that don’t necessitate a physical demand, but are emotionally and mentally stressful. And we all know these types of stresses don’t just last three minutes! They stay with us hours a day, several days a week, for months or years. They are chronic.
Meanwhile, the body keeps doing the only thing it knows how in times of stress – floods it with adrenaline and cortisol, and keeps you in sympathetic dominance. It is this prolonged activation of the stress response that leads to the many problems we hear about regarding stress. Here are 13 ways that long-term stress can affect your health:
- Weight gain or inability to lose weight
- Digestive upset
- Lower immunity
- Cognitive and memory impairment
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Blood sugar disregulation
- Mood swings
- Muscle aches and pains
- Thyroid problems
Keep in mind that stress is not the only cause of the issues above, but it can be the sole cause in some cases, and stress will aggravate each of these issues, even if they are caused by something else!
How do you think stress is impacting you? Let me know in the comments!