When stress becomes a way of life

Our natural stress response cycle breaks when we experience chronic stress

Aparna Vemuri

‘Stress’ – a word that is so commonly used but what does it really mean? What does it do to our bodies and how does it impact our mental health. Here's a quick lowdown that'll help you understand stress better. 

What happens when we are under stress?

Our bodies have a way of adapting and adjusting depending on the situation. For example, on a hot day, we sweat. This cools the body. On a cold day, we shiver and this generates heat to warm the body. Similarly, when we are under stress our body responds to this stress to restore the body’s internal state of balance known as homeostasis. This stress response is a natural process of dealing with stress quickly and takes place in the form of a fight or flight response.

Have you ever noticed, how your heart beats faster and your breathing becomes shallow when you witness an animal that you fear or during an uncertain situation like waiting for examination results or appraisals? This is because our body produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These stress hormones provide instant energy to act either by running away or fighting or hiding in a safe place.  When the stress is over or not present, the level of hormones in the body decreases and the body resumes its normal functioning state. Our brains too have a similar mechanism to change physically or functionally to adapt itself to stressful life situations or events. This is known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticty is the ability of the brain to form new neural pathways in response to learning or to the experience of stress or following injury. Each neural pathway is a bundle of neurons that connect various parts or areas of the brain. Through the formation of neural pathways, the brain is adapting to function effectively. Formation of neurons is known as neurogenesis whereas formation of neural pathways is known as neuroplasticity. 

Stress is harmful for physical and mental health

Some stress is accepatble, however you may have reason to be concerned if you are in a constant state of stress. Continued experience of stress can greatly influence our normal metabolism. According to Hans Selye -- an Austrian -Candian endocrinologist who pioneered reasearc on stress -- stress is a major cause of disease because chronic stress causes long-term chemical changes.

Our bodies have the natural ability to handle temporary stress.  Stress hormones affects all the bodily functions. The heart-rate becomes faster, the adrenaline causes the heart to pumpmore blood, the breathing becomes shallow and faster. But if an individual experiences stress over a period; say for over months and years; then the body’s mechanism of adapting to stress gets affected. A person who has an ongoing marital discord or experiences continuous work pressure  can experience chronic stress. When stress becomes a way of life, the natural stress response cycle is broken. In such a state, the heart is constantly pumping blood at a high rate and the person's breathing becomes shallow.

In a similar manner, the brain also functions and adapts to stress but if it is exposed to chronic stress for long periods of time, it may exceed the brain’s capacity to adapt, and then it becomes a vicious cycle with impaired neuroplasticity; affecting brain functioning. While experiencing stress, the brain is adapting by forming new neural pathways. But, when the stress is beyond the person's stress threshold, it damages the brain's ability to form neural pathways. This affects the functioning of the brain.

Neurophysiologists have noted that too much cortisol in our body can cause damage to arteries that can lead to cardiovascular diseases, strokes and high blood sugar levels.  Psychiatrists opine (say) that if the stress-response capability is exceeded by chronic stress, it may lead to psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, somatoform disorders etc. This can be further worsened by use of alcohol and other substances which many people resort to when stressed.

Relieving Stress

It’s important to note that every individual’s stress threshold and ability to handle stress varies. However, it’s good to keep a check on how stressed you are on an average. If you feel you are stressed most of the time or if stress has become a way of life, then it’s time to relieve stress either through:

  • Exercise: Regularly exercising helps in using the energy built due to stress hormones and helps in restoring the internal balance of bodily functions. Exercising could be in the form of walking, running, jogging or even dancing. 
  • Yoga and mediatation: Practicing yoga and meditation helps in improving the brain’s ability to repair itself as it enhances neuroplasticity.
  • Deep breathing and relaxation: Following deep breathing exercises and regular practice of relaxation techniques helps in increasing blood circulation, slows down heart rate and lowers blood pressure. 

The article is written based on the inputs from Dr. Shivrama Varambally, Additional Professor Department of Psychiatry, NIMHANS