It’s been a long day of work, once again you have left just after the sun has gone down. With a sigh you begin to make your way across the parking lot to your car. As you step out of the lights from the building and into the darker parking lot you hear the faint footsteps of someone walking behind you. You casually glance behind you and your eyes catch the figure of a man also just moving out of the lights of the building into the darkness. You quicken your step a little and walk through the first row of cars; you don’t hear any car doors unlock or open and realize despite your quickened step the stranger doesn’t seem any farther behind you. Your heart begins to beat more quickly and your breathing becomes faster as you reach inside your pocket for the keys realizing that you’re only half way through the parking lot. You lengthen your stride as you make your way between the second row of cars and begin to pull out the keys. Your mind is racing, what will you do if…almost running now you get into to your car and put the key in only to realize that the stranger behind you has just started his own vehicle and is beginning to pull out. He drives away as you slide into your seat and wipe the sweat that has begun to bead on your forehead. Shaking your head, you laugh at yourself a little as you start the car. With a few deep breaths you feel your heart beat slow, your mind calm, and your hands stop shaking.
You have just experienced the body’s natural alarm system which many call the “fight-or-flight response” or the “stress response”. This natural reaction to danger or a stressful situation is a good thing and it allows our bodies to respond more quickly and our minds to think more rapidly to help us deal with an urgent problem. It is a fundamental link in the mind/body connection. During the stress response the body’s adrenal glands begin to pump out increased amounts of hormones called cortisol and adrenaline, among others. Adrenaline causes your heart rate to speed up, increases your blood pressure, and boosts your energy supply. Cortisol increases glucose in the blood, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases other substances in the bloodstream that aid in tissue repair. These result in the symptoms that we feel; faster pulse, faster breathing, heightened awareness and so forth. In small or short amounts, these hormones are incredibly beneficial, but what affect does a prolonged stress response have on the body?
If the stressors in your life remain for an extended period of time and leave you feeling constantly on edge, tense, or stressed, the elevated levels of the aforementioned hormones and the prolonged response to these hormones can inhibit the immune system and cause damage to the body. There are many things that can cause prolonged stress, including the death of a spouse or a loved one, divorce, job loss, starting a new job, family troubles, an unrepairable vehicle, financial trouble or a prolonged heavy work-load. In fact in a survey by the American Psychological Association, it was revealed that nearly 75% of Americans say that they are stressed to the max; most are attributing that stress to money, work, and the economy. Some of the greatest problem from prolonged stress are increased risk of heart attack, stroke, or blood clots due to high blood pressure, increased levels of cholesterol in the blood stream, the blood coagulating more readily, high or low levels of blood glucose, and continuously high levels of insulin. If left unchecked, prolonged stress can lead to many chronic diseases which can eventually lead to death. Learn more about the negative effects of chronic stress here.
This is not to say that we should avoid anything stressful; it is impossible to avoid all stress. We should however, learn how to manage stress and deal with it appropriately; this will be the key to avoiding the negative physical and mental health problems associated with chronic stress. Future posts will include important ways to help manage stress.