Stress: The good, the bad and the chronic

BY ZAKIYA KASSAM

The word “stress” is one that carries an extremely negative connotation. Being stressed is rarely perceived a positive thing, but the alternative – being stress-lessNervous_Man_Approach_Anxiety – can be harmful to your physical and emotional health as well.

Most people don’t realize that we need stress in our bodies in order to feel vital and excited. When your palms sweat upon seeing your crush, when you get butterflies in your stomach upon starting a new job, when you’re about to take a penalty shot and you can feel your heartbeat in your ears, these are all natural and manageable responses. These are also examples of positive stress or “eustress.” Without eustress, we wouldn’t be ambitious, motivated, or excited. These are all part of the ups in life that push us forward and shape our emotional development. 
 
Everyone experiences stress, and whether you’re experiencing it positively or negatively, stress can be taxing on your body and ultimately harmful to your long-term health. But your body is equipped to deal with the majority of your stress, so long as it’s acute. When your stress shifts from short-term to long-term however, this is called chronic stress. After a period of being chronically stressed, the body’s ability to return to homeostasis (its pre-stress state) becomes dulled. 

Chronic stress occurs when the body is experiencing stressors too often, or too intensely – overriding the body’s typical function of relaxing itself. The autonomic nervous system becomes overloaded and your body is in a constant state of physiological arousal. 
 
Chronic stress is bad for your emotional and psychological health, of course, and it’s also detrimental to your physical well-being. The physical side effects of chronic stress are harder to track because they are virtually invisible and can be attributed to other things. 
 

Here are a few invisible, and not so invisible, ways chronic stress does harm to your body:

  • It changes your gene expression. The release of the chemicals that your body produces when you are under emotional duress (like epinephrine and cortisol) affectsimages.png the functionality of your genes. This can have an impact on things like your immune system and the way your body stores fat, and can ultimately make you more susceptible to illness and/or weight gain. 
  • Hindered sleep. This one’s no secret; when you’re stressed, it can be difficult – if not impossible – to shut your brain off to sleep. Night time is quiet, there aren’t distractions, and it’s an inopportune time for your mind to wander and mess with your sleeping patterns – whether that be through disruptive dreams that punctuate your rest or just plain insomnia. This can often become cyclical: you’re not sleeping because you’re stressed, and you’re stressed because you’re not sleeping. 
  • It affects your ability to form new memories. Too much cortisol can damage the hippocampus and interfere with the brain’s memory formation process. Also, during acute stress, the cortisol interferes with neurotransmitters. That’s why when you’re nervous, it can be hard to think straight or retrieve memories. 
  • Stressing early on can set you up for more stress later in life. I was an easily agitated little girl, and as I’ve gotten older, the frequency and intensity at which I experience stress have only heightened. Maybe I have more to be stressed out about now than I used to, but according to studies on the subject, experiencing stress at a young age affects your corticotrophin releasing hormones – setting the rate for the rest of your life. Never-Stress-Life-Love-Quotes.jpg
One thing to avoid if you feel like you are in the midst of or are beginning to experience
chronic stress is “catastrophizing.” This can be difficult since catastrophizing – or frequently thinking about what’s stressing you out – is oftentimes the automatic response to stress. This is why active exercising is recommended as a first response to combat stress. Getting out of your own head for even 30 minutes gives your body a chance to calm down and return to homeostasis.

ZAKIYA KASSAM12312232_10208039303806073_238423358_n

Zakiya has her degree in journalism from Ryerson University and currently works as a freelance content writer based in Toronto. Zak is a dedicated journal-er and enjoys writing and reading fiction, particularly science fiction, in her free time. Mental illness is something that has touched her life and the lives of her loved ones, so she is supportive of anything that brings attention to and provides new perspectives about mental health.

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