Stress is something that we have all experienced. As humans, we naturally strive to maintain homeostasis. This is a state in which all of our biological processes have stability and equilibrium. This equilibrium is essential for our survival so when it is disturbed, our bodies naturally take action to try to restore it. Stress response is just one of these actions.
Many of us have experienced the ‘fight-or-flight’ response when faced with a threat or challenge. This usually produces a quickened heart rate, sweaty palms and shortened reaction time. What has happened in this moment is the body’s perception of a trigger. This has pushed it to react by releasing any combination of a number of hormones. Nearly every cell in the body has receptors for one or more of these hormones. So, these chemicals can inform nearly all of the cells and tissues in the body about the presence of the stressor. This leads to physiological reactions across the whole body. In the short-term, these reactions are protective in that they help the body to deal with the challenge presented by the stressor. They can enhance wound healing, promote anti-infectious agents and promote autoimmune responses. In short, stress responses in this context are very helpful.
Not always. Occasional stress responses that last for a few minutes or hours are essential for our survival. However, responses that are activated frequently, continuously and for extended periods of time (a number of hours per day, for a period of weeks or months) are described as Chronic Stress. This can have a damaging effect on long-term health.
Most beneficial short-term stress responses are in reaction to an external stressor. For example, a car swerving into your lane, an object falling into your path or a sudden injury. They are an evolutionary adaptation that allow us, as creatures, to keep ourselves alive and safe. However, humans, unlike animals, are also able to generate and feel the presence of psychological and social stressors, in addition to external stressors. While these internal stressors are capable of producing the same short-term performance benefits as external stressors, they can also lead to the long-term activation of physiological stress responses. When our body engages a stress response, it also puts other bodily processes, such as digestion, growth and immune responses, ‘on hold’ temporarily. In the short-term, the effect of this is not significant. Constantly doing this, however, can lead to a range of chronic health conditions.
There are a number of things you can do to optimise good stress and minimise bad stress: