Stress is a phenomenon that dates back to our earliest ancestors. While the stressors have drastically changed from those of our predecessors, we still respond to stress with fight, flight, and freeze. Responding to short-term stresses, like touching a hot surface, is crucial for our survival. Say you are holding a very hot cup of a coffee. The nerve endings in your fingers activate the body’s alarm system, the amygdala, which triggers the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that governs involuntary body functions. The hypothalamus will increase your heartrate, blood pressure, breathing, immune system responses, and cause changes in the digestive system. All of these responses improve your body’s reflexes and prepare your body to take spontaneous action. In this case, to let go of the hot cup.
But our bodies also respond to the social-emotional stress of day-to-day pressures (like deadlines and family demands) as if it were a physical stress (like a hot cup, the flu, exercising, or a papercut). These social-emotional stressors are frequent and persistent; and they are changing our bodies and brains. Persistent, long-term stress is one of the biggest contributors to obesity, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases. These stressors can also lead to depression, anxiety disorders, addiction issues, eating disorders, and social isolation.
Studies have shown that long-term stress is also affecting our brains. Stress-related activity in the hypothalamus affects memory and understanding. Long-term stress can also contribute to reductions in the volume of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is linked with long-term memory, decision-making, social connection, and emotional responses.
An annual stress survey conducted by the American Psychological Association shows that 25% of Americans are experiencing high levels of stress, while another 50% report moderate levels of stress. Stress is a part of our everyday life and the only way to curb it is by managing it. You can cultivate a resiliency towards stress by:
- Seeking social support
- Engaging in brain stimulating activities, like learning a new language or a skill
- Pursuing creative hobbies, such as art and music
- Seeking professional help
Learn more about managing stress in our next post!
This post was co-written by Daphne.