Anatomy of Stress
By RuiLin Guo
Stress may seem like a mundane reaction to the pressures of modern life. Often brushed aside or attributed to the increased expectations of our current age, stress is actually an influential and fascinating response that dates back to prehistoric times.
The Science of Stress
What we perceive to be stress – anxiety, fatigue, headaches, and other symptoms – is actually the result of an innate “fight or flight” response that we had even before we were huddling in caves around newly-discovered fire. When faced with danger, we had to decide to flee to safety or stand our ground and attack, and our bodies went through several physiological changes to prepare for survival. While stressors today are more likely to be impending exams than a charging mammoth, our automatic response remains the same.
The stressor-response begins with the brain, which sounds an ‘alert’, triggering a cascade of physiological changes. Epinephrine, or adrenaline, is released and pupils dilate to let in more light for better vision. Breathing quickens to get more oxygen to muscles, and muscles tense (which may trigger tension headaches). Heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket, preparing your body to fight a perceived threat. You start to sweat, making skin harder to grasp or puncture, and your mouth may go dry, as digestion is shut down in favour of more vital functions. The liver releases glucose (sugar) to provide energy, and glucose and oxygen go to central organs like the heart, brain, and skeletal muscles in preparation for a fight or chase.
In modern-day life, we often can’t physically run away from or battle our stressors, since they’re more likely to be a presentation than a tiger. So instead of giving us an advantage in a fight, all those automatic responses can have negative effects. Stress may cause headaches, fatigue, and stomach upsets, as well as muscle or chest pain. Stress might also cause anxiety, restlessness, irritability, sadness, depression, or anger. You may experience a lack of concentration or find it hard to be motivated, and things you normally enjoy might cease to interest you. Stress can lead to behaviours like over or under-eating, social withdrawal, and drug, alcohol, or tobacco use.
Getting rid of stress is no easy task, but there are healthy ways to avoid, adapt to, or accept stressful situations. Figuring out the source of your stress is a good place to start. You can only begin to fix a problem once you know its cause, so be honest about your habits and attitudes. Managing your time, keeping things organized, and thinking positively can all help avoid stress. Other helpful habits include maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
If you do find yourself stressing, try focusing on breathing deeply, thinking rationally about how to solve your dilemma, and picturing yourself relaxing. There is no one simple solution to dealing with stress, and coping methods will be different for everyone. Whether it’s meditation, drinking tea, listening to music, or spending time with friends, find something that works for you. While stress may be nature’s way of preparing for the worst, know that you can avoid and manage it for better peace of mind.