Stress As A Signal Of Danger
Biologically speaking, since the early times, our bodies have been primed to respond to stressors indicating danger. After stressful situations things like sleep, yoga, meditation, and others are calming forces. When intense stress on a short-term basis occurs, your body thinks there might be a threat, which triggers a release of chemicals. What happens after that is fast-acting adrenaline affecting every organ in the body. Your cortisol levels rise. At the same time, the autonomic nervous system is also triggered.
Within that system, there are the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, which work in tandem during your average day. The sympathetic system works to overcome the threat, aka your average stressor. Lungs expand to ready the body for movement, and non-essential functions like the digestive system shut down to funnel glucose to the muscles as you prepare to “flee.” Your heart rate rises.
Let’s say your stress is work-related. You go home. You meditate, do yoga, take a nap. The recovery process is usually fast. Your parasympathetic nervous system is activated, telling your body to calm down. Your heart rate slows, your eyes un-dilate, your body releases energy.
However, sometimes during periods of acute stress, the switch for the sympathetic nervous system gets turned on. This means you’re in an extended version of fight-or-flight mode. Non-essential processes will continually be in shutdown mode, from digestion to immune function and even hair loss. You’re susceptible to a cold virus because your body is not worried about and does not perceive it as an immediate threat. You’re suffering from what is know as acute stress.
This can happen if you’re stuck in prolonged stress mode — maybe a big project at work is taking up all your time, or a troubled relationship is requiring all your energy. Your body may perceive the rigors of these situations as immediate danger. If you interpret getting very little sleep and less food as life-threatening, then this can trigger a panic attack. It’s because your system is being triggered to fight — but you’re not. You’re just sitting there, with heart pumping out of control.
And everyone responds to varying degrees of psychological stress differently. Our systems are so unique physiologically. We all have our own internal needs, sleeping well and eating well for our own bodies, and they have massive implications on our health. If these needs aren’t being met adequately, you can have a full-blown incident.
The Slow Burn Of Stress
Yet, there’s more to it. If stress is not intense and acute for a time, but slow, steady and chronic over time, you can also encounter some major health problems — a buzzy topic of study right now in the field of psychology. Stress day in and day out, on end, can change the brain chemistry and it has huge implications for our immune systems as well as hair loss.
Scientists call this psychoneuroimmunology, where stress can actually alter the immune system in a big way. There are several cytokines that transport information throughout the body, particularly important here are interleukins. When you are chronically stressed, they are overpopulating, overworking, and sending mixed messages throughout the body.
Your immune system doesn’t know what to do with those messages, leading to real, worsening, even lasting changes in immune function. This is why we often see autoimmune conditions develop after periods of chronic stress. Sometimes we see Crohn’s disease, sometimes we see shingles. This can also lead to Alopecia Areata as well as Alopecia Totalis or potentially Alopecia Universalis.
This type of moderate stress long-term can have catastrophic impact. It can lead to a host of destructive health issues — depression, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems like heartburn, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and can also impact your ability to concentrate. It can cause insomnia. Your ability to focus on work and relationships will also be affected.
Finding A Channel
Stress, whether chronic or acute, is a big deal if you don’t find a way to channel it. The best way to handle stress is to expel it. Exercise can reduce stress hormones, flooding the body with endorphins that improve mood, boost energy, and provide a healthy distraction. Yoga is another effective channel for your anxiety.
If you cannot find a solution that works for you, seeking a therapist’s advice can be helpful — especially before stress becomes too powerful for you to handle yourself.
However, you have more control over your stress than you realize. You have the power to consciously activate that parasympathetic nervous system, which will calm you down. You’ve heard people suggesting to take deep breathes and breathe deeply. It’s actually really true. Something as simple as slowing down your breath is a really sound physiological strategy.
If you continue to stay stressed you’re telling your body there is an imminent threat. Practice methods of calmness, and you’re signaling that all is well. The moment you break the pattern of stress, is the moment you send a message to your brain that you are OK — slowing down that release of chemicals.
So, next time you’re stressed? Remember: you’re in control, and channel those inner-superpowers.