We’re all stressed, aren’t we? We’ve got deadlines to meet, appointments to keep, houses to clean, emails to answer, kids to get dressed and out of the house in time for school, cars taken to the garage for servicing, essays to hand in … it’s relentless, and there’s always something! In fact, we can even get stressed over things we are not doing, when we know we should, or things that might go wrong in the future: worries. Yes, we can even think ourselves into a stressed state.
When we’re stressed, we often don’t feel all that good. It’s exhausting, for one thing. Sometimes we break out in a sweat or get clammy hands or feet. We feel breathless, our heart is beating faster, we’re forever starving – and grazing – or forget to eat altogether.
But have you ever wondered why that might be? What goes on in our body when we’re stressed? Everything the body does happens for a reason, so what benefit do you get from sweaty palms when you have a lot to do?
What you are experiencing when under stress is your body’s physical stress response, and if you consider that we evolved thousands of years ago, things are beginning to make a lot more sense. You don’t have to go back in time very far, to get to a point when the stress response was extremely useful – and it still can be today.
What would have been the main stressors for people, say, just 10,000 years ago? Getting food would have been the most immediate concern they had to deal with every day. Not finding anything to eat would be a stressful situation in itself, but the hunt for food often brought on other dangers: You might have ended up getting hunted yourself, either by wild animals or people. And this is where the physical stress response comes in very useful.
When faced with a dangerous wild animal or an aggressive rivalling tribe, you have two options: You can run and hopefully get yourself to safety, or fight for your life. For either of those scenarios, the physical stress response – also known as the fight-or-flight reaction – is just the ticket. It triggers a cascade of adrenal hormones – stress hormones – that cause the following to happen:
- Energy is required, so glucose stores in the liver and muscles are released to provide it.
- The function of insulin is inhibited – it’s job is to remove sugar from the blood stream, but that’s where it’s needed right now.
- Breathing is accelerated to oxygenise the blood.
- The heart beats faster and blood pressure goes up to get glucose and oxygen to the muscles and – fascinating fact here – not just any muscles, but the ones you need most: Your arms if you’re fighting or climbing, your legs if you need to run! Isn’t that great?
- Peripheral vision improves and other senses are heightened, too – you’re on alert.
- Blood is withdrawn from the surface of the skin to limit bleeding in case of injury – this would make you appear pale and you might feel cold.
- Hands and feet start to sweat – this gives your hands better grip and your feet more traction.
- You won’t feel pain – pain is a signal to your brain that something is not right and needs attention, but in a fight-or-flight situation it would only be a distraction that prevents you from running for your life.
- You’re not hungry right now – but you might get really, really hungry once you see the bear toddle off in the distance, because now you need food to recover and rebuild your energy stores.
- Digestion is put on hold – you can do that later.
- Procreation is postponed – really not a priority right now.
Isn’t this amazingly perfect? Nature has thought of everything! Everything you need in a life threatening situation is there!
Yet, our stressors are different today: You don’t need extra oxygen just to sit in your car, stuck in traffic. Glucose doesn’t help you pay off your credit cards, and high blood pressure does not improve relationship issues. The stress response – though still good when we do actually get chased by a vicious dog or are set upon by a mugger – was not designed to deal with modern stress. It was meant to last minutes only, because after just a few minutes you would either be safe or dead. Our stress is relentless, always there, lasts for months, or years or forever.
Watch this space for what happens next.
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