Stress is an automatic physiological response that a person experiences on a mental and/or physical level when put in a stimulating situation or when experiencing a stimulating event.
Stress is often explained as an unconscious physiological response to any event that challenges the safety or well-being of an individual and is frequently associated with the fight or flight response (attack or run), however stress may also occur during heightened feelings of pleasure or excitement (positive stress).
While stress may cause strain on our body and mind without it life would be boring & our ability to respond to threats would be significantly reduced.
Stress allows us to improve our physiological performance, respond to negative or positive situations quickly and efficiently and focus on the most important decision making factors in order to ensure our survival.
On the other hand too much negative stress can hamper our ability to lead happy and healthy lives, create issues in our relationships, weaken our immune system and make us more susceptible to injuries & illnesses.
Simply put stress is an early warning system that activates an automatic physiological response in order to provide us with the best possibility of survival.
In order for an individual to experience stress their must be a stressor (the object that causes stress).
Stressors may be physical or psychological in nature and can include almost any type of stimulation from hunger or lack of sleep to negative music or a bad date.
To give you some examples of the many types of stressors a person may face on a day to day basis we’ve included some examples below.
Examples of physical stressors may include:
• A lack of sleep
• Physical exercise
• Overexertion of the bodies’ muscles and/or tendons
• Prolonged exposure to an uncomfortable or unnatural sitting, standing or laying position
• Sickness, diseases and/or injuries that cause pain
• Heat & light exposure
• Body altering chemicals such as steroids or Viagra (may also cause mental stress)
Examples of mental/psychological stressors may include:
• Being overwhelmed by a particular event or set of events
• Mentally challenging activities
• Unhealthy relationships
• Verbal abuse
• Trying to complete too many demanding tasks in an insufficient amount of time
• Being exposed to negative or unwanted stimulation (i.e. music, movies or games)
• Negative internal dialogue
• Brain altering chemicals (may also cause physical stress)
In primitive time’s stressors and our response to stress often meant the difference between life & death, being eaten or having a meal to eat and remaining healthy or becoming deathly ill.
Today stressors are often related to work, relationships, dieting, physical/mental health and sleep.
How stress works
When we experience stress our body enhances our brain function, neurological response, strength, sensory systems and attention by releasing adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol into our blood stream.
This release of chemicals along with our autonomous fight or flight response system allows us to react quickly to situations and perform feats that may be considered supernatural or impossible during non threatening events.
Stress also causes our body to slow down non essential functions such as our immune and digestive systems in order to focus its full attention on the most vital factors and physiological components involved in our survival.
Fight or Flight
During stress our body may experience a fight or flight response.
Fight or flight is an unconscious response to a threat or challenge that causes our brain to determine whether or not a particular individual, animal or object (the stressor) is a threat and whether we are able to safely defeat that particular stressor without injury or if the stressor has the ability to cause us harm or death.
If we are able to easily defeat the stressor our brain may tell us to fight or ignore the stressor, however if the stressor is able to harm us and we stand little chance of winning then our brain will likely tell us to flee.
In sports we generally feel a less intense form of fight or flight that entices us to accept a challenge and continue participating in an event, however when we are physically threatened, especially by a larger opponent our body may tell of to flee (flight) from that particular situation.
From a psychological perspective fight or flight may also affect us on a social level such as when we go on a date.
While this type of interaction may cause an individual to experience stress and trigger a fight or flight response it is often a perceived fear that is based on previous experiences, and while their fear may not be correct it can falsely trigger stress and lead an individual to flee a non threatening event.
This same psychological response may also be useful when we need to complete a task that we don’t have an interest in such as when we need to finish a school paper in order to pass a class.
By imagining ourselves failing that class and being humiliated or not being successful we can trigger our fight or flight response and boost our concentration and ability to get the job done through our impinged perception of a harmful negative consequences to failing our class.
By understanding how our body responds to imaginary threats we can develop strategies to control our fight or flight response and lead happy and healthier lives or get necessary tasks completed when we otherwise would not be motivated to complete them.
Protecting ourselves and our loved ones
In addition to protecting ourselves stress also helps us in times of emergency where a family member may require help.
For example their have been numerous cases of people lifting heavy objects off of a loved one when they are trapped in order to free them from severe injury or certain death.
In these cases the stress they received released adrenaline and other muscle stimulating chemicals in order to boost their physiological state and strength which allowed them to react quickly and lift an object that would otherwise be too heavy to pick up.
In another example stress may cause us to be less susceptible to pain by temporarily numbing the pain and allowing us to fight through an experience or deal with something that may be extremely uncomfortable in order to save ourselves or our families.
How stress affects us today
While stress was a vital component to our survival during primitive times and war today it can either improve our mental/physical health or cause implications and unnecessary physiological damage during civilized times.
For example an employee may be artificially stressed by a deadline placed on him by his/her employer in order to complete a task within a specified time.
While this stress may get the employee to complete a project at the speed the employer finds satisfactory it can cause the employee to wear him or herself out and become exposed to mental fatigue, physical stress and a lowered immune system.
It can also cause the employee to develop problems in his or her personal life and with the relationships that are important to him/her.
The unnatural release of cortisol and adrenaline can also cause issues with the individual’s ability to sleep and respond to real emergencies.
When used effectively however stress has the ability to improve our performance, longevity and pleasure.
If an individual wants to improve his or her health, flexibility, cardiovascular system and/or strength they can participate in a sport or exercise program in order to get fit while also allowing them to enjoy what they are doing.
These physical activities can cause an individual to release the same physiological boosting chemicals that are released during fight or flight (adrenaline, noradrenalin & cortisol; however it can also cause them to release dopamine and other reward/pleasure chemicals which are often released during play or enjoyable interactions with others.
This combination of chemicals and activities can lead an individual to experience pleasure while also helping them condition their body to respond to stressors in the future.
From a natural selection point of view those who frequently participate in social interactions and physical activities often stand the best chances of passing on their genes.
While these activities often cause individuals to experience stress they also cause the same individual to experience pleasure and realize their genetic potential.
In conclusion stress heightens an individual’s ability to respond to a real or perceived threat by boosting his/her focus, senses and physical abilities in order to provide him/her with the best chance for survival.
When used effectively stress can improve our lives and allow us to become healthier, however when used in the wrong manner it can create health and relationship problems with long lasting negative consequences.