What’s the Point of Stress?
At some point, most of us have found ourselves spiraled down into a pit of stress, wondering how we got there in the first place. And at this point, most of us have asked ourselves, “What’s the point of stress? Why am I even stressing out? What’s the point!?” While stress can be very unpleasant at times, it actually serves a major purpose in our lives, and is one factor that has helped humans survive throughout the centuries.
What is Stress?
Stress is generally categorized into eustress or distress (check out this blog to learn more). For the purpose of this blog, all stress will be considered distress. Stress is the experience or feeling of emotional and/or physical tension.
When we become very stressed we often experience the following:
Tense muscles (especially shoulders)
Fatigue or restlessness
Stomach aches or nausea
The list goes on.
Where Does Stress Come From?
Stress is a natural state that has occurred in humans throughout history (and in many other animals as well). And believe it or not, stress is actually something that has helped and saved humans throughout time. Don’t believe it? Keep reading.
What Happens to Our Bodies When We’re Stressed?
Stress is our body’s way of telling us that something is wrong and that action must be taken. Let’s think back in time to when humans were still nomads.
Life for humans was tough...and dangerous. With that, our ancestors had to be prepared for anything. So Bob going on his daily search for food had to be prepared for a lion to pop out of the brush. When that happened, his mind had to prepare his body for survival.
Bob sees the lion
His brain registers the lion as a threat
The brain sends a signal to our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The CNS causes muscle contraction (which allows for us to move)
Bob’s adrenal glands get signaled to release the hormones cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine, which gives us a burst of energy and increased heart rate
Bob starts breathing heavily (getting more oxygen into the body)
Bob stops digesting food (who cares about digestion when there’s a lion to deal with?)
Bob decides whether he’s going to fight the lion or run from it
Once the lion is gone, Bob’s Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) takes over and helps return his body back to its baseline state
Our body’s response to stress is awesome when dealing with an acute stressful situation, like deciding whether to run from or fight the lion. But what about in today’s society, where the pressure of daily life makes our minds feel like there is a lion behind every turn?
The Impact of Chronic Stress
Now we’re looking into a situation of chronic stress. So now instead of: major stressor → stress response → fight or flight → baseline, we’re now experiencing something more like: minor stressor → stress response → another minor stressor → stress response → another minor stressor → stress response, on and on and on.
So acute stress helps us to respond to a potentially life-threatening situation and then helps us return to our baseline (or our normal). Chronic stress, on the other hand, is an accumulation of minor stressors over time. The result is our bodies being in a state of near constant stress. This is not healthy or sustainable for us.
Are Minor Stressors That Damaging?
These minor stressors are often disregarded as harmless annoyances. However, they can be the most damaging if left unchecked.
Check out this day of minor stress:
Jane wakes up late in the morning
On the way out, she spills her coffee all over herself
Already late to work, she gets stuck in traffic
Jane runs into work, just to see a pile of papers on her desk
Just before lunchtime, Jane’s boss comes in to warn her about an important deadline
At the end of the workday, Jane rushes home to pick up her children
Jane then proceeds to race the children from one sport to the next
Getting home late, Jane rushes to feed the children and get them to bed
Just as she gets into bed, Jane remembers that she had another report due today
Jane’s day wasn’t out of the ordinary for many of us. The stresses she faced weren’t life threatening (certainly no lion). However, these minor stressors piled up throughout the day, with a new stressor appearing before she recovered from the previous stress. This repeated over time creates chronic stress, which can be extremely damaging and dangerous to our mental and physical health.
How to Manage Stress
Stress cannot be completely avoided. However, there are some things that we can do to manage stress.
Tips for Managing Stress:
Increase awareness of yourself and your body so you can deal with stress right away
Schedule regular times for relaxation and self-care
Seek out professional support for dealing with stress