Do you suffer from stress in your life? While some stress in the body is normal, ongoing stress is not. Today we’re looking at the difference between ‘normal’ and chronic stress. From this place, you can start looking at specific ways to reduce it and find more calm, balance and joy in your life.
So many people suffer from excess stress in their lives. This is what inspired me to create this Less Stress, More Joy series. In this series, we’ll take a closer look at stress and a variety of ways that can help you reduce it so that you can create a calmer, more balanced and joyful way of being in the world.
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Normal stress vs chronic stress
Stress is actually a normal physiological process in the body.
It is basically a built-in survival mechanism that the body initiates in times of danger. That’s why it’s often referred to as a “fight or flight” response. Because it’s usually a situation where you’d need to face (fight) or escape (flight) danger. Like facing or running from a bear.
So it’s essentially just your body protecting you from harm.
What is a normal stress response in the body?
When the body perceives a threat, it responds immediately. This causes a series of processes to launch in the body.
Keeping it simple, when your body perceives a threat, your brain activates the sympathetic nervous system and sends signals to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands then release adrenaline into the bloodstream. This causes various physiological changes in the body to adapt to this perceived threat. The heart rate increases and more blood is pumped to essential organs like the legs in case you need to move quickly or run. The brain is pumped with extra oxygen to increase alertness and the senses become sharper. And more glucose is released into the bloodstream to give us more energy.
This amazing response to perceived threats happens immediately, and it’s quite incredible. Think about those times where your body has reacted to a threat, like a car on the road, where you’re jumping out of the way even before you’ve fully realised what’s going on. That’s the magic of our body.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Once this stress response is activated in the body, various other hormonal signals happen to keep it activated until the perceived threat is gone. This results in the adrenal glands releasing cortisol into the bloodstream, which keeps the body in high-alert.
And finally, when the threat subsides, the cortisol levels drop and the parasympathetic nervous system reduces the stress response and you get back to normal.
You can read a detailed description of the stress response in this Harvard Health article if you like.
It can feel quite technical, but it’s interesting to understand that stress is a natural and necessary response in the body. It’s simply our bodies trying to protect us.
What is chronic stress?
While it’s normal for your stress response to be activated in the body, it’s not normal to be activated regularly. And when this happens – where your body is constantly perceiving threats, activating the stress response and in high-alert-mode – it can negatively impact your health and wellbeing in a variety of ways.
Wiki puts it well:
Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives they have little or no control. It involves an endocrine system response in which corticosteroids are released.
While the immediate effects of stress hormones are beneficial in a particular short-term situation, long-term exposure to stress creates a high level of these hormones.
This may lead to high blood pressure (and subsequently heart disease), damage to muscle tissue, inhibition of growth, suppression of the immune system, and damage to mental health.
In today’s modern world, it’s no surprise that so many suffer from chronic stress on some level.
Nowadays, we have many more stressors in our lives. Traffic on the way to work, a demanding or unsatisfying job, a looming deadline, a toxic relationship, an upcoming event, a family situation, moving to another city, and on the list goes.
Life also generally moves at a faster pace, with less time to relax. We have higher expectations and pressures. Many people have tons going on, with an endless to-do list. And with the internet and smartphones, we are plugged in most of the time, leaving very little time to actually relax.
And so you find the average modern human dealing with many different kinds of stress – stressing about time, about the future, a situation, a relationship or a traffic jam.
All these different stressors can trigger a stress response in the body regularly throughout the day, leading to chronic stress in the body.
How chronic stress can impact your health and life
As mentioned above, in a ‘normal’ stress response, once the perceived threat has passed, your body returns to normal – hormone levels return to normal, your heart rate and blood pressure return to normal, and other systems in the body can resume their normal activities.
However, when we’re constantly stressed, our stress response stays on, and our body is constantly preparing for a real-life threat. And when it’s in this state, your body is focused on dealing with a threat instead of doing other essential things – like proper digestion or adequate immune response.
This long-term activation of the stress-response in the body and the overexposure to stress hormones can disrupt most of the body’s processes, increasing the risk of many health problems.
Excessive prolonged stress can impact your life and health in a variety of ways – physically, emotionally and in our behaviours. Some chronic stress-related health issues include digestive issues, sleep problems, mental fatigue, weight gain, lowered immune system, anxiety, depression, anger, irritability and outbursts. And even in behaviours, it can show up as nervous switches, pacing and nail-biting.
Stress shows up in different ways in our lives, and it’s important to recognize when it’s in excess and having a negative impact on your health.
That’s why it’s important to build awareness of the stress in your life.
Exercise: What do you perceive as a threat in your daily life?
The very important thing to realise about stress is that it’s all about what you perceive as a threat in your daily life. That perceived threat is what triggers the stress response in your body.
Here is a nice simple example: Traffic can be very stressful for one person, and totally fine for another.
This is such an important point to take in because stress can almost become like a habit. Certain things in your life stress you out, and they become natural triggers. For example, every time you sense a traffic jam, your body immediately perceives a threat and activates a stress response. And if you’re in traffic most days of the week on your way to work, you’re stressing yourself out regularly.
Of course, it’s normal to worry about things and feel some stress. But it’s important to pay attention to what is triggering you on a regular basis and look for ways to start changing your perception. While being in traffic is annoying and can perhaps make you late, you can start to change your thinking and behaviours around it. Leave earlier so that you avoid it. Or, if you can’t, take some deep breaths in the car, put on some classic music or an inspiring podcast, and use your time better, instead of stressing. Consider the things you can control and the things you can’t.
ACTION: Become more aware of what triggers you in your daily life. As you go about your regular day, notice what makes you feel stressed out. Perhaps keep a journal and note down what was going on and how it felt.
Are you ready to start reducing excessive stress in your life?
If you’re serious about reducing the stress in your life, start by building your awareness.
Of course, dealing with stress is a layered and tricky topic. But, as you become more and more aware of what activates stress in your body, you can start taking small specific actions to create a calmer response to those triggers.
We’ll look at some of these strategies in future posts. If you’re in need of some tips right now, you can subscribe to Live the Wonderful’s newsletter and you’ll receive a “10 Ways to Reduce Stress & Overwhelm” PDF guide.
What causes continuous stress in your life? Please share in the comments, I’d love to hear from you.