You know the feeling. Your busy life just got even busier and now you're overloaded and struggling to cope with the demands of everything that's going on. In a word, you're stressed.
Work, relationships, home life, annoyances, anything that poses a real or perceived challenge or threat to your wellbeing can cause stress. It's simply the way we have evolved to survive.
For 2.6 million years we lived as primitive tribes, always alert to sudden and life threatening events. Thankfully most of us now live in more stable, settled societies. However, the primitive part of our brain is still constantly scanning our environment looking for threat, ready to fire with the hint of anything alarming.
And our bodies will react the same way regardless of whether the threat is real or in our heads.
Stress is the body's natural defense against predators and danger. It injects your body with hormones to prepare systems to evade or confront the perceived attack, also known as the "fight-or-flight" mechanism. Your brain fires the panic button and things start to happen. First your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) dumps chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol in your blood stream, then pumps this blood into your muscles for energy to help you run faster.
This reflex tactic diverts attention away from anything but short-term survival, so your digestion and immune system are neglected until the threat is over, whenever that is.
Stress can be a motivator, essential to survival. But if these mechanisms are triggered too easily, or when there are too many threats or challenges at a time, it can become harmful.
The long terms effects of stress on our bodies have been well documented.1 We know that ongoing chronic stress causes muscle tension, heart conditions, sleep problems, and digestive issues to name a few. Recent research also shows that chronic stress can speed up the aging process by shortening the length of each DNA strand.2
It's also important to understand how feelings of stress affect the brain. Chronic overproduction of cortisol can damage brain structure and connectivity. 3
Alarmingly, it can actually damage brain cells and prevent new ones from forming, which can prevent new learning from happening. 4 Our brain can become overactive, which can leave us feeling anxious, nervous, stressed and even depressed, limiting our resilience and creativity.5
So how do we stop ourselves becoming overstressed? There are lots of techniques and options, many of them very easy to implement:
Stress might be part of modern life, but it doesn't have to rule you. Taking steps to understand what stresses you out - and what relaxes you - will help you respond better to what's around you. And ultimately guide you towards a healthier, happier life.