Stress: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

StressSusan Brown Health and Wellness Editor

The Good: Stress is most often viewed negatively, but an appropriate amount of “good” stress provides the stimulation that keeps us engaged from moment to moment. Situational stress happens when we feel a sense of control over challenges and experiences we face on a daily basis. It’s a fact of life that everyday stressors, though unnerving, have become normalized and unavoidable. We live in a very stressful world, complicated by family responsibilities, work performance and social obligations, as well as serious, often unexpected life events. In immediate short-term stressful situations, the body’s acute stress response allows for the release of adrenalin, cortisol and neurotransmitters that enable the mind and body to cope with momentary challenges. This survival response results in a quickened heartbeat, rapid breathing and a rush of oxygenated blood to the heart, muscles and other organs, as well as a heightened ability to perform during stressful, yet manageable situations.

The Bad: Per the National Institutes of Health (NIH), all creatures face threats to homeostasis, which must be met with adaptative responses. Under proper functioning, once the threat or perceived fear has passed, bodily systems should return to normal balance. When stress is chronic, the central nervous system stays in a heightened alert mode, resulting in prolonged exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones. Long-term activation of the body’s stress response can cause a variety of symptoms that take a toll on overall wellbeing and put physical health at risk. This can include digestive issues, anxiety, depression, weight gain, memory and concentration issues, as well as high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. Some of us have become so accustomed to chronic stress, that it begins to feel “normal,” and we don’t realize the huge impact stress has on our physical and mental health.

The Ugly: Although stress evolved as an adaptive response, prolonged stress can lead to tissue damage, disease and a shortened lifespan. Consequences of stress have been identified as increased harmful behaviors, such as smoking, substance abuse, and eating disorders. Chronically elevated blood pressure forces the heart to work harder and can lead to damaged arteries and plaque formation. Elevated levels of stress hormones are associated with suppressed immunity, slower wound healing, increased susceptibility to viral infections and compromised antibody response to vaccinations, including influenza, pneumonia and other infectious illnesses. Prolonged stress is also associated with heightened inflammation, as well as exacerbation of autoimmune diseases, atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease. Perhaps even more alarming, attachment of surplus cortisol to certain memory-enhancing receptors in the brain negatively affects memory and the ability to remember.

There is no simple fix to resolve all stress inducing situations, nor any uniform proper amount of stress, as each person has an individual stress threshold, or the actual degree of stress needed to cause benefit or harm. What matters most is how one responds emotionally and physiologically to stressors. A broad based approach to stress reduction includes strategies to increase coping skills, as well as reduce pressures. Finding ways to eliminate or diminish stressors that we can control, as well as cope with stressors that are out of our control, can result in improved mental health and physical wellbeing. This can include strategies like getting proper amounts of sleep, engaging with friends or family members, being physically active, spending time in nature and taking 10 minutes of “me time” daily, to quietly sit and focus on the breath to trigger the body’s natural relaxation response.

Stressed? We can help!

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Lower Stress: How does stress affect the body?
STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants.
Stress Effects.
The Perfect Amount of Stress.


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