The Secrets of Stress: What You Need to Know and Beyond 

The origins of the word “stress” can be traced back to the Latin term “stringer,” which means to tighten, strain, or compress. It is not an emotion but rather an intricate response the body employs in reaction to perceived or real threats. This reaction is deeply ingrained and often eludes conscious control. Instantaneously, it begets physical and mental tension, typically coupled with negative emotions, predominantly fear and anxiety. During these moments, our sympathetic nervous system springs into action, releasing adrenaline and quickening our heart rate while rerouting blood flow to our muscles. The production of cortisol intensifies, supplying an immediate energy boost, and all our physical and mental resources rally to determine whether to confront or flee. After a few minutes, if the danger has passed, our bodies draw upon reserves and release other hormones, such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, to soothe us.

However, dwelling in a state of stress over an extended period coerces the body into enduring sustained tension. As a result, the cardiovascular system wears down, immune defenses wane, and the body’s hormonal equilibrium is disrupted.

While we might think we have a comprehensive understanding of stress, the reality is far from it. Furthermore, a considerable portion of our knowledge is misinformed. Here is a catalog of some of these misbeliefs:

Is all stress bad? Should we always try to stop it? Today’s scientists say that stress, as a general response of our bodies to new things, is actually a way we adapt to changes in our surroundings. A biologist named Dmitry Zhukov even says stress brings positive feelings. He thinks these feelings are why we enjoy going to movies, theaters, amusement parks, and other exciting things.

Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist from Stanford University, agrees that stress can be good for our minds. In her book The Upside of Stress, she explains: “Thinking of stress as a useless part of our animal instincts is old-fashioned. Modern science tells us that stress pushes us to improve our ‘social intelligence’ — this is what makes us human.” This means that during stress, our bodies make a hormone called oxytocin. It makes us feel close to others and trust them. It encourages us to ask for help, make social connections, and get support. So, stress is something our bodies already have a plan to deal with.

When Stress Becomes Overwhelming:

However, concerns about stress aren’t baseless; sometimes, it can genuinely harm the body. Uncontrollable stress, as described by biologists and ethnologists, happens when three conditions align: the stressor is unavoidable, our body can’t cope with it, and we can’t predict when it’ll occur. Think of the stress of exams. Even though we know when the exam is and what kind of questions to expect, we can never predict the specifics of how examiners will reactor if our answers will impress them.

Uncontrollable stress, especially when it’s frequent, can lead to changes in our health and behavior, termed “learned helplessness.” This situation serves as a precursor to depression. It occurs when we’re placed in a problem inherently unsolvable, where our actions don’t change the outcome. In simple terms, imagine a lab rat in a maze —whetherit finds an escape or not has no effect on if it gets shocked. This leads to immobilization, loss of interest in eating, and becoming passive, much like the symptoms of depression. We can see a similar pattern in people subjected to daily humiliation by their superiors or restless students who repeatedly face disciplinary actions for failing grades.

“Good” and “Bad”:

The idea of “good” and “bad” stress comes from the work of a Canadian doctor named Hans Selye, who came up with the concept of stress. When he explained the tension that we feel as our bodies deal with a dangerous situation, he found a difference between stress that makes us overworked and tired (distress) and the stress that makes us feel strong and confident (eustress). Nowadays, psychology and physiology differentiate between short-term stress, which boosts our body’s abilities, and long-term stress, which wears our bodies out.

It Must Be Contested:

Would life be better without stress? No, it would be boring, without challenges, and without reasons to sharpen our minds and develop our skills. Whether it’s a cyclist suddenly appearing in front of a car, a looming deadline at work, or an offer to take the lead in a class, we wouldn’t be prepared to handle tough situations— like going to the doctor when we’re not feeling well—without the mental and physical tension from stress. Trying to get rid of stress, which is like our body’s natural reaction, is pointless. It’s like deciding not to breathe because there are some impurities in the air.

We Can Predict It:

The idea of predicting stress is appealing; everyone wants to be prepared for tough times. Humans have this ability, and it helps us survive, unlike animals from different branches of evolution that couldn’t handle the Earth’s rapidly changing conditions. Nowadays, we call it intuition or the “sixth sense.” Some people have it stronger than others, but it’s a natural part of being human.

Trying to guess when stress will happen has its problems, though. On one hand, it can make us stressed even before anything happens, and on the other hand, it gives us a false sense of control. Psychologist Patrick Légeron suggests we stop thinking we can control everything and take a more philosophical view. When something unexpected occurs, feelings of helplessness can make stress even worse. So, it’s important to stay connected to reality, be realistic about what’s going on, and understand that sometimes we have to let things go.

It’s in Our Genes:

Our genes have an impact on how we deal with stress, but having genes that make us more prone to stress doesn’t mean we’ll automatically suffer from it. Recent research in epigenetics has shown that our environment and personal history have a big role in how our genes work. People with low serotonin levels, which suggest they might be genetically more prone to stress, can adjust their lifestyles to manage emotional sensitivity and avoid situations that make stress worse. Conversely, people with high serotonin levels who are naturally less stressed might take more risks and end up in various stressful situations that wear them out faster. It’s important to understand that while our genes play a role, our life circumstances also have a big impact on how we deal with stress.

Its Cause is Not Always Psychological:

It is a mistake to separate physical stress from psychological stress, says therapist Thierry Janssen. Stress always works the same way; the only difference is what causes it. Stress can come from things that bother our minds, like problems at work, or from things that bother our bodies, like annoying noises. When we’re stressed in our minds, our bodies react too. People facing tough times might feel things like a tight stomach, a fast-beating heart, and tense shoulders. Constant, invasive noise, for example, can trigger bodily reactions that turn into nervousness, tiredness, and sometimes even profound sadness. “The more we feel like we can’t control things, the more we tend to think of stress as a mental thing,” says Thierry Janssen, “as if understanding what’s going on in our minds will fix it.”

How stress affects our thinking:

High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, can make our brains smaller and make it harder for us to think and remember things.

A big study by American doctors looked at 4,244 people (with an average age of 76) who didn’t have dementia. They used brain scans to measure how big each person’s brain was and tested their abilities to think and remember things. They also took spit samples to measure how much cortisol, or stress hormones, each senior had in their bodiesin the morning and evening. Then, they put these people into three groups: high cortisol, medium cortisol, and just a little cortisol.

People with a lot of cortisol typically had smaller brains and less gray matter, with about 16 milliliters less brain than those with less cortisol. These folks also didn’t do as well on the thinking and memory tests; however, this was only true for their evening cortisol tests. In the morning, high cortisol levels were linked to more white matter in the brain (not gray matter) and better scores on certain tests (but not memory tests). Scientists think that evening cortisol levels show how much stress is in our bodies when we’re at rest, while morning levels show the stress we feel when we first wake up.

We know that depression can make a person more likely to get dementia, but we’re not sure why. People who are depressed usually have more cortisol in their bodies, and some scientists think this might hurt a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is very important for memory.

One of the scientists who worked on this study, Lenore J. Launer, said, “Since we have only seen the results of one analysis, we cannot yet say what happens first — the increase in cortisol levels or the decrease in brain volume. The reduction in brain volume during aging may reduce its ability to withstand the effects of cortisol, which in turn leads to further brain cell loss. By delving deeper into this relationship, we will try to find ways to reduce the negative impact of cortisol on the brain and cognition.”

Exit mobile version