Modern life is full of frustrations, deadlines, and demands. For many people, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. Stress isn’t always bad though. Stress within your comfort zone can help you perform under pressure, motivate you to do your best, even keep you safe when danger looms. But, when stress becomes overwhelming, it can damage your health, mood, relationships, and quality of life. You can protect yourself by understanding how the body’s stress response works, recognizing the signs and symptoms of stress overload, and taking steps to reduce its harmful effects.
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action. Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed your reaction time, and enhance your focus. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ stress response and is your body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, stress helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.
Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body. Unfortunately, the body’s autonomic nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events. If you’re stressed over an argument with a friend, a traffic jam on your commute to work, or a mountain of bills, for example, your body can still react as if you’re facing a life-or-death situation. When you repeatedly experience the ‘fight or flight’ stress response in your daily life, it can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, speed up the aging process and leave you vulnerable to a host of mental and emotional problems.