Stress is an adaptive coping response that has evolved in human beings and animals. It has allowed them to survive and thrive in an environment where danger is around every corner. Stress allows the living body to think and operate with greater speed and agility and is very useful in evading predators, catching dinner, and escaping the many dangers in the wild.
The stress response kept our ancestors alive in their natural habitats but is still part of our programming in our technologically advanced and highly artificial environments today. We would think that this very useful adaptive mechanism would be a boon to coping with modern life, but the application is fundamentally different.
According to the natural evolutionary concept, stress is supposed to be a momentary condition and quickly relieved after the short burst has served its purpose. Natural environments are replete with many destressing agents that encourage the restoration of normal body functions once the alarm had passed.
But this scenario is far from the way stress is applied today and the effects “superstress” has on the brain and mental function are severe.
Understanding the Stress Response
Thousands of years ago, humans experienced stress when hunting game, doing something dangerous and perhaps at higher levels when escaping a predator. The physiological effects of stress allowed optimal function but were only used occasionally.
Today’s society manages to keep its citizens in a perpetual state of mild to moderate stress. This is caused by a collection of factors ranging from the seemingly innocuous, like multitasking, to the obviously-malignant, like lack of exercise and stressful work environments.
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But, the natural biological plan was not to be escaping threats and avoiding danger 24/7. The human body was simply not made to deal with this level of stress. The physical and mental results are currently displayed in full-detail across our considerably unhealthy societies.
Experts have labeled this condition of pressure, to which many people are subjugated, “superstress.” And there is a lengthy list of common everyday factors that keep this deathly grip on the populace. Some of these stress-causing factors include:1
- Undesirable employment
- Financial difficulty
- Noise pollution
- Lack of time spent in outdoor environments
- Lack of exercise
- Too little time with family and loved ones
- Social media and instant communication
- And many more
How Stress Impacts Psychology
Experts in the recently-opened fields of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) study the link between the immune system and the nervous system and how these two related systems affect emotional and mental health. One of the topics that have gathered the most interest in PNI is stress and how such a beneficial response could have grave consequences.
Research in PNI has concluded that chronic stress as experienced by many today can be a forerunner and contributor to anxiety conditions, depression, cognitive function, and many other conditions of mental illness.2
Stress Leads to Depression
The stress response is primarily a chemical reaction that switches the body’s energy supplies to a more efficient fuel plan. But, this involves applying some high-octane chemicals to the bloodstream that can leave the person feeling exhausted when applied regularly.
Furthermore, stress saps the body of serotonin, dopamine, and other brain-chemicals needed for motivation and positive thinking. The combination of mental and physical exhaustion with the lack of mood-boosting neurotransmitters can lead to depressive conditions.3
Stress Aggravates Bipolar Disorders
Those suffering from the effects of bipolar disorder can switch or cycle through different moods very quickly. These conditions can sometimes be especially acute for weeks and months at a time and moodiness can greatly disrupt regular operations. While stress may not be the underlying cause of bipolar disorders, it can severely aggravate them.
Stress can trigger a sudden manic or depressive mood in those already inclined to bipolar conditions. Stress during a bipolar episode can greatly increase the severity and intensity of the experience while increasing its duration.4
Stress Promotes Anxiety
Anxieties are the learned mental reactions to regular stress and can begin to show in outward manifestations. Some people begin twitching an eye, biting fingernails, scratching, tapping fingers or feet, and/or develop a host of other nervous responses to specific situations. Anxieties are like learned-fears that can begin from stress and grow considerably from there.
Stress can lower one’s mental resilience to perceived threats and upcoming situations where their anxieties will be provoked some more. This can affect a person’s capacity to work well and even lead a normal productive life. The same anxieties that cause mental anguish often prevent the individual from seeking qualified help.5
Stress Diminishes Cognitive Function
Actually, a little stress–– once in a great while–– allows more blood to reach the brain and allows the brain to think ultra-fast making all sorts of clever connections. But chronic stress hampers the nervous system and can even affect the brain and its structures. It is no doubt that stress is the ultimate “mind-killer” and enough of this locally produced-poison will destroy the brain.
The first cerebral structure to be affected is the hippocampus, which is essential for memory processing and making enlightened decisions based on experience. The frontal lobes will go next and take with them the capacity to apply attention and filter out irrelevant information during cognitive performance. In the long term, chronic stress can lead to dementia and degenerative conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.6,7
Stress and Personality Changes
Personality is said to be the sum of a person’s emotional balance, thought patterns, and behavior over a given period of time. Personality is made up of their temperament, which is believed to be the inherited side. It is also molded after the interactions made with other people and the environments we inhabit.
It is not uncommon for the potent stress hormones included in the stress response to cause great alterations in a person’s personality. This can result in greater aggression, loss of interest in hygiene or appearance, obsessive-compulsive behavior, reduced efficacy in the workplace as well as other behavioral changes.8
Final Words on Stress
The first and most important step towards ridding your lie of stress and enjoying the healthy benefits of serenity, you have already taken. Recognition of how dangerous high-stress jobs and lifestyles can help you begin eliminating major stressors from your world. Then you can begin building stronger resilience to the effects of stress through regular exercise, practicing mindfulness, and getting sufficient sleep at night.
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