Is there ‘good stress’? Does chronic stress really affect our quality of life that drastically? Our ancestors survived because of the stress response of ‘fight or flight’ instinct, but they did not remain in this state. Why isn’t it beneficial to remain in a continual state of survival? Here is some insightful information, shared by Dr. Axe, about what living within a state of chronic stress can do to our health – numbered research can be view in his original article.
So what is “good stress”? While stress itself may not be a good thing, each of us is only here because of the stress response. Our ancestors reacted to a threat by fighting or fleeing, literally or figuratively, and so survived thanks to this fight or flight instinct. Whether it was a food shortage or a physical threat, they went into what the prominent science center, the Franklin Institute, refers to as “metabolic overdrive.” (1) Adrenaline and cortisol flood the body. Blood pressure, breathing and heart rate increase. Glucose is released into the bloodstream for ready energy. Digestion, growth, reproduction and immune system functions are suppressed or put on hold. Blood flow to the skin is decreased, and pain tolerance is increased.
During a real crisis, your actions would end up reversing many of these processes. You would fight or flee and resolve the problem — then take comfort in contact with loved ones or satisfaction in your abilities. You might dispel adrenaline through pacing or some other soothing effort and restore your metabolic and hormonal balances. Life today, however, doesn’t often offer us the opportunity to enact a full stress response and resolution. Instead, we operate as if we’re in a constant, low-grade state of emergency, with no real end in sight. Many of us don’t physically dispel stress hormones or take the time to resolve the real problems. We don’t soothe ourselves or take the time to question our priorities. So what are some of the things chronic stress is doing to you?
1.It’s Messing with Your Brain – You may think that it’s necessary to work under the gun all of the time, but according to the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC), chronic stress affects your ability to concentrate, act efficiently and makes you more accident-prone. Chronic stress has devastating effects on memory and learning. It actually kills brain cells. UMMC reports that people with post-traumatic stress disorder experience an 8 percent shrinkage of the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, and stress affects, most decidedly, children’s ability to learn. (2)
The Franklin Institute explains that the stress hormone cortisol channels glucose to the muscles during the stress response and leaves less fuel for the brain. Cortisol also interrupts brain cell communication by compromising neurotransmitter function. All learning depends on the use of memory. Stress affects your ability to access memories and prevents you from creating new ones. Worse yet, your hippocampus is involved in turning cortisol off. As it becomes damaged by chronic stress, it becomes less able to do so and becomes more damaged. This is what the Franklin Institute refers to as a “degenerative cascade.”
2.Stress Increases Risk of Heart Attack, Heart Disease and Stroke – A direct link between chronic stress and increased risk for heart attack, heart disease and stroke has not yet been established by researchers. What chronic stress does do, reports UMMC, is worsen risk factors for these conditions. Stress increases your heart rate and force, constricts your arteries, and affects heart rhythms. It thickens the blood, which may protect against blood loss in case of injury, according to UMMC. Stress increases blood pressure, and chronic stress damages blood vessel linings, especially because chronic stress contributes to inflammation.
3.Stress Dials Down Your Immune System – Fighting off infection isn’t a primary concern if your body thinks it’s facing an immediate danger, but the problem is chronic stress definitely dampens your immune system, making fighting infection much more difficult. People seem to be much more susceptible to infections and experience more severe symptoms when they come down with a cold or flu if they’re stressed, reports UMMC. Stress can also trigger a detrimental overdrive in your immune system. Stress contributes to inflammation in the body. Your immune system may react to other damage going on in your body due to stress and send out immune compounds known as cytokines that contribute to the inflammatory response. These compounds can damage healthy cells in their effort to combat unhealthy factors occurring in your body. Inflammation has been linked to a multitude of health conditions and diseases, from asthma and diabetes to cancer and heart disease.
According to the Franklin Institute, stress affects the blood-brain barrier. This barrier protects many substances that enter your body from ever reaching and affecting your brain, things like drugs and toxins, viruses and poisons. Researchers found that stress increased the permeability of the blood-brain barrier in Gulf War soldiers. Drugs meant to protect their bodies from chemical attacks and that should have never affected the brain did.
4.Chronic Stress Contributes to Aging – As I’ve explained, the stress response turns off many physiological processes that aren’t deemed urgent. Consider the lack of blood flow to the skin. That’s certainly going to affect how old you look. Worse, though, is how much chronic stress can affect the aging brain. We all lose brain cells as we age. Toxins, automatic routines, improper diet, lack of exercise and loss of social connections contribute to this. So, as stress allows more toxins to cross the blood-brain barrier and cortisol damages the hippocampus, brain function, new learning and memory are greatly affected. The reduced effectiveness of the blood-brain barrier is a common finding in people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The APA reports on a study of chronological age versus physiological age related to stress. Women that cared for disabled or sickly children over a matter of years were 10 years older physiologically. That’s because chronic stress affected their ability to regenerate blood cells. Chronic stress can also contribute to aging in terms of arthritis, cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
5.Chronic Stress Affects Your Mood and Relationships – Constant stress can affect your sleep patterns and make you irritable and fatigued, unable to concentrate and highly reactive. You may become unable to relax and operate in a state of anxiety. Depression is a common reaction to chronic stress. All of these things can downgrade your quality of life and affect your relationships with others.
A ‘constant low-grade state of emergency’ is not a healthy state to remain within. What can we do to reduce our chronic stress? Next time we will look into some ways to decrease stress and bring back a healthier balance to our lives. Chronic stress can also be a factor in our inability to manage our weight, so we will also look into some adaptogen herbs that may help us lower our cortisol and reduce cravings.