Did You Know: Effects of Stress on the Body and Mind

“Stress is the body’s nonspecific response to a demand placed on it.”

Hans Seley

Stress.

That is one word to which we’ve come to react simply when hearing or reading it, not to mention experiencing it. We live in an age of speed, in which the theory of “more, better, faster” has become almost a religion, and because of that we are constantly under pressure.

Stress is not something new in the development of humankind. It always existed, all people in this world have experienced it, even if we’re talking about people from the 21st century or people from thousands of years ago. But, what happens nowadays is that development is accelerating more and more, and because of this the level of stress that we experience is constantly growing.

We need stress because it motivates us, permanently pushing us towards improvement, but we must always be cautious about how much we allow it to force us ahead, because stress can have both good parts and bad parts, its effects on our body and mind being both positive and negative.

Seley, the “father of stress research”, determined the two types of stress – the good stress, which he named “eustress”, and the bad stress, which he named “distress”.

When stress is applied, our body responds accordingly to the stimuli, and goes from the initial state of balance into one of stress, in which all sort of physiological effects occur, like for instance:

  • The brain releases endorphins to relieve pain
  • Heart rate increases and heart increases its strength of contraction to pump more blood
  • Blood pressure rises
  • All senses – sight, hearing, smell, and taste – become more acute
  • Sugars and fats are released into the blood stream to supply fuel
  • Adrenaline and other hormones are released into the bloodstream to provide energy
  • Muscle tension increases to prepare for action in the shortens time
  • Bronchi dilate, allowing for more air into the lungs

This reaction is pure stress and is a result of a cascade of hormones that starts as soon as our brain realizes that a demand is being made on our body. During this stress response, the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune and musculoskeletal body systems are all activated.

The effects of stress are meant to be short term, and after the perceived “danger” passes, the body should return to its state of homeostasis, the state of internal equilibrium when all the body systems function smoothly and are balanced.

Eustress is what we could call to be just the proper amount of stress that we need in order to function at our best. Normally, the level of hormones released in our blood flow is meant to help us improve ourselves, like for instance cortisol and glucocorticoids increase our capacity to learn and memorize.

When the level of hormones released in our body becomes too high, negative effects begin to appear – and that is what Seley called “distress”. Brain scans of people who have suffered long term stress show that their hippocampus has shrunk. Their ability to plan, concentrate, learn quickly, think ahead and act decisively has been compromised as a result of long term flood of stress hormones into the body and brain.

The conclusion would be that excessive stress is bad for us. But so is too little stress, because when we’re not stressed enough, other problems appear, like boredom, lack of motivation, unfulfilled dreams and desires, not reaching our potential, low self esteem, and others.

The idea goes, therefore, that we should find a balance in this matter, but that is difficult, because stress cannot be traditionally quantified. We are all different people, each of us responds differently to the same stimuli. So it’s up to each of us to realize when stress exceeds our ability to cope, and then to be able to take a break and breathe.

One lovely ascertainment regarding stress, from my point of view, is given by Donald Tubesing:

“Stress is like spice – in the right proportion it enhances the flavor of a dish.

Too little produces a bland, dull meal; too much may choke you.”

So in the end it only depends on us to learn how to follow Lin Yutang’s beautiful advice, which I recommend to you too, dear readers: “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone.”

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3 thoughts on “Did You Know: Effects of Stress on the Body and Mind

  1. Sometimes if we sit back our brain figures out things for us and also sometimes children are smarter than ourselves with their ability to look right through the trash and find the simple answer.

  2. There is also the relationship between activity and stress reaction. Depending upon our level of activity, or the rate at which we burn off the additional endorphins, sugars, fats, adrenaline, and whatever else stress factors there are, we store these in the body if not burned off. Later on they become poisons to the body and a major part of the distress. I noticed you didn’t mention this, Liliana.

    Thanks for the professional approach on this topic, as it affects us all, and we should be aware of its impact.

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