At its simplest, the definition of stress is how your brain and body respond to a perceived demand or threat. It’s tough to define more specifically because everyone is so different. What causes stress for your friend may not concern you at all, or maybe you’re just better at bouncing back from stressful situations. But one thing is certain: there’s no way to completely avoid stress, and eliminating stress is not necessarily the goal.
The stress response is a normal physical and psychological process. Back in the hunter-gatherer, cave-dwelling days of humanity, stress triggered a critical survival “fight, flight, freeze and anger” response to help our ancient ancestors escape hungry predators and other dangers. Although the stress of today’s modern world in places like the United States is generally different and less threatening (such as job, family, children, bills, etc), the body’s response to stress is still the same unfortunately.
Here’s what happens when your body produces stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol:
- Your heart rate increases and you breathe faster
- Your brain thinks less, and reacts faster
- Your muscles engorge with blood to prepare for action
Unfortunately, in today’s world stress can hover over you like a heavy blanket, and we perceive no end to it. Instead of returning to a natural resting state (having regular periods of mental and physical relaxation), the body too often stays in a state of distress, which makes the heart work too hard, blood vessels constrict for longer than they should, and blood sugar and weight increase. Over time, what is meant to be a life-saving instinct can instead take a toll on your physical and mental health.