What Science Says About Why You’re Stressed and How to Cope

An excerpt from What Science Says About Why You're Stressed and How to Cope by Bridget Alex​​

Whether animal, vegetable, mineral or machine, everything experiences stress — broadly defined as challenges to equilibrium, a balanced state of being.

The Human Stress Story

In biology, stress is the body’s response to perceived threats to our physical or mental well-being. Moderate amounts are healthy and normal. But too much — or too little — causes problems. Chronic stress is linked to cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression. Stress associated with extreme events such as combat can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of PTSD, which affects over 7 million Americans, include flashbacks and hypervigilance long after a trauma. Meanwhile, recent studies show that people who underreact to stress are more likely to have impulsive behavior and substance addiction.

The Adaptive Stress Response

A 1936 Nature paper launched the field of stress research. In the study, physician Hans Seyle — later called the father of stress — subjected rats to cold, drugs, excessive exercise and other assaults. Whatever the stimuli, the rats exhibited similar physiological effects.

Now understood as the stress response, this set of bodily changes is an adaptation that allows animals to focus their energy on survival and forgo other matters such as growth or reproduction. It’s initiated when the brain detects a potential threat and launches a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that affects the endocrine, nervous and immune systems.

One stream of hormones, called the sympathomedullary (SAM) pathway, triggers the fight-or-flight response, characterized by upticks in heart rate, breathing and blood sugar levels. Another pathway, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis, keeps the body on high alert by tapping glucose reserves and dialing back nonessential functions.

How Our Bodies React to Stress

When a stressor occurs, the amygdala region perceives the threat and sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which acts like a command center. It kicks off a stream of hormones along two pathways: the sympathomedullary (SAM) and the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis.

(Credit: Jay Smith)

How to Cope

There are a lot of coping strategies that relieve negative feelings associated with stress. Some — such as meditation, journaling, therapy and medication — are recommended; others — denial, overeating, alcohol — are not. Alternatively, some strategies remove the stressor. For instance, a couple in a toxic relationship may sever ties, or someone overwhelmed by to-dos could improve time management skills. The best approach depends on the person and their circumstances.

For healthy individuals with everyday challenges, simple changes can help. Nearly 30 studies with a total of more than 2,500 participants found stress and anxiety were reduced thanks to mindfulness programs that taught people to live in the present, without judgment. Similarly, a 2017 review of 42 studies in Psychoneuroendocrinology concluded that yoga improves measures of a healthy stress response, including blood pressure, resting heart rate and cortisol levels.

Full Article:

What Science Says About Why You're Stressed and How to Cope

 BY Bridget Alex

Alex, Bridget. “What Science Says About Why You're Stressed and How to Cope.” Discover Magazine, Discover Magazine, 15 Nov. 2019, www.discovermagazine.com/mind/what-science-says-about-why-youre-stressed-and-how-to-cope.

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We’ve all experienced a stress-related increased heartbeat, stomachache or headache at some point in our lives, even if were weren’t clearly recognizing the reasons behind those physical reactions. Understanding how to cope with physical stress is just as important as understanding how to cope with mental stress.