When stress becomes a way of life
Wellbeing

When stress becomes a way of life

Our natural stress response cycle breaks when we experience chronic stress

Aparna Vemuri and Aditi Surendra

What is stress?

Stress is a response to a situation that makes you feel frustrated, anxious or angry. In these events, a natural process known as the fight or flight response is triggered. This process releases stress hormones to help the body and mind deal with the situation at hand.

What happens when we are under stress?

When we are under stress, our body responds to it by trying to restore the body’s internal state of balance known as homeostasis. This is accomplished by the release of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. They provide instant energy to act either by escaping, confronting or hiding from the source of stress. Once the trigger of the stress is over or no longer present, the level of hormones decrease and the body resumes normalcy.

Similarly, our brains use a mechanism called neuroplasticity to change physically or functionally to adapt to stressful situations. The brain forms new neural pathways in response to the learning or to the experience of stress or injury. Each neural pathway is a bundle of neurons that connects the different parts of the brain to each other. With new formations, the brain is constantly learning new ways to adapt to stress with time. 

How does stress affect the body and mind?

Stress is a part and parcel of life - many situations we encounter can fall under the category of stress - like preparing for an exam or encountering an insect you’re afraid of. In these situations, our bodies have the natural ability to handle the temporary stress. Stress hormones affect our bodily functions:

  • Heart and lung functions increase

  • Digestive system comes to a halt

  • Bladder and sphincter muscles relax

  • Pupils dilate

  • Peripheral vision reduces

  • Blood pressure, blood sugar and fat increases

  • Blood clotting function increases

  • Muscle tension increases

  • Blood flow is diverted towards your muscles

These changes help us adapt to handle the temporary stress at hand. However, we also have triggers of stress that are not likely to end quickly - like financial worries or stress at the workplace. 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. 

Similarly, the brain’s function and ability to adapt to stress is affected when it is exposed to chronic stress for long periods of time. It can exceed the brain’s capacity to adapt and when the stress is beyond the person’s threshold, it can damage the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways. This can impact the functioning of the brain. 

Neurophysiologists have also observed that too much cortisol in the body can cause damage to arteries increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, strokes and high blood sugar levels. Psychiatrists also note that if the stress-response capacity is exceeded by chronic stress, it can lead to psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders and somatoform disorders. It can also lead to substance abuse which can result from attempting to cope with the stress.

Coping with stress

The stress threshold and the ability to handle stress varies for different people. It’s important to keep an eye on how stressed you are on an average. If you are experiencing stress most of the time, you must try to curb the amount of stress by relieving it.

  • Exercising regularly helps to use the energy that is built up in the body due to the release of stress hormones. It also helps in restoring the internal balance of bodily functions. Exercising could be walking, running, jogging or even dancing.

  • Yoga and meditation can improve the brain’s ability to repair itself by enhancing neuroplasticity.

  • Deep breathing exercises and regular practice of relaxation techniques help with better blood circulation, can slow down heart rate and reduce blood pressure.

The article is written based on inputs from Dr Shivrama Varambally, additional professor, at the department of psychiatry, NIMHANS

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