Stress, a universal experience, often comes from a multitude of sources including health issues, work-related challenges, financial difficulties, or relationship problems.
While stress can be a healthy motivator helping us overcome obstacles and achieve goals, chronic stress can have negative impacts on our overall well-being.
Jeffrey Birk, Ph.D., a researcher studying the relationship between emotions and health at Columbia University’s Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, discusses the nature of stress and its impact on the human body.
How Stress Works
Stress disrupts the body’s equilibrium, shifting it towards a state of imbalance.
Typically, the feeling of stress arises when we perceive a situation’s demands to be greater than our ability to cope. This response triggers the body to release cortisol and other stress hormones.
These hormones can take a toll on our bodies if their levels remain elevated for an extended period due to chronic stress.
Adaptive Stress Response: The Ideal Situation
When brief, stress can be beneficial. Our bodies adapt to challenges by releasing catecholamines such as adrenaline, which temporarily mobilizes our energy to respond to the situation. Stress hormones such as cortisol help focus our energy, allowing us to solve problems effectively. Once balance is restored, the level of stress hormones reduces.
Chronic Stress and Its Impacts
Chronic stress, which occurs over a more extended period, is a result of sustained or frequently recurring stressors.
This type of stress keeps the body’s stress response system (HPA axis) activated, maintaining high levels of stress hormones.
Research shows that chronic stress can raise blood pressure, increase heart rate, induce irregular heartbeats, heighten inflammation, and amplify feelings of anxiety and irritability.
These effects can increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, illnesses, and harmful lifestyle habits like smoking.
Differentiating Normal and Chronic Stress
While both normal and chronic stress are similar, they differ in their duration and effects on the body.
Short-lived stress typically causes temporary anxiety, headaches, or fatigue, but balance is generally restored after a brief period.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, may cause prolonged emotional overwhelm, physical exhaustion, rapid heartbeats, or unexplained persistent pain.
Recognizing and addressing stress sources effectively is crucial.
Techniques such as physical exercise, mindfulness meditation, spending time with loved ones, and slow-paced breathing have been proven to reduce the effects of chronic stress.
Effective stress management can significantly improve well-being and reduce the risk of future health problems.
Even under challenging life circumstances, such as managing a chronic health condition, stress can be successfully managed with the right approach.
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The study was published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
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