Stress. That pesky six letter word that has an uncanny ability to wreak havoc on our mental and physical health. By now we have established a working definition of what “stress” is, as well as when and how it manifests itself (discussed in detail here)- arising when we believe we don’t have the resources to cope with the situation at hand- either imagined or real (Lazarus, 1999). Throughout my previous posts I have explored this idea of stress from many angles, examining causes, effects and ways to cope. From this survey of the diverse literature on the topic of stress, some general themes and lessons have emerged.
First, when in the appropriate context a stress response is adaptive and advantageous. Evolutionarily, the physiological cascade of responses triggered in the body in response to an appraised threat is effective at preparing the human or animal to fight or flee from potential danger (Sapolsky, 2004). However, we as humans have the unique ability to conjure up stress in our minds. This has allowed us to perceive seemingly safe contexts as stressful (such as the workplace), subsequently triggering stress responses that are evolutionarily maladaptive (as you won’t be fighting with your computer…at least physically). As such, contexts that elicit stress are now expansive and elusive for us humans in modern times, making stress relatively species specific.
For humans, stress can be both physical and psychological in nature. This duality of stress is perfectly illustrated in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can develop following a physically stressful event, such as threat of injury or death. However, symptoms of the disorder arise from “reexperiencing” this initial trauma, which occur in the mind in the absence of threat (Yehuda & LeDoux, 2007). Sadly, for us lay folk feelings of stress and subsequent physiological response can arise for far more trivial reasons (can you say first world problems…). For example, if merely trying to figure out how to use constantly changing technology doesn’t cause you stress, the potential it provides for social comparison just might (Ayyagari & colleagues, 2011; Frost & Rickwood, 2017). Interestingly, today, we often hold several ranks depending on the context we are in, thus the tendency to feel like we are at the bottom of the hierarchy is increased (Sapolsky, 2004). Although social subordinance is a common stressor experienced by many species alike, the social hierarchies of today’s society are now defined by a multitude of factors beyond who is the biggest, strongest baboon in the pack, to make matters more stressful than they already were in caveman days…
Regardless of whether perceived stress is physical or psychological in nature, it can lead to significant physical damage. Regardless of whether we are running from a hungry lion, or struggling to keep up with a hefty workload, the longer we endure such stress the more destruction occurs within our bodies. When it comes to the physical toll that stress takes on your body, acute stress is good, as it may help you avoid further physical damage (i.e. becoming a lion’s lunch), but prolonged stress is deleterious. Endure acute stress for a few minutes or hours and our bodies can quickly adapt and recover (homeostatic overload avoided!) (Romero & Wingfield, 2016). Chronically encounter such stress for days, months, or years and we increase our risk for a variety of stress related diseases. As previously discussed and commonly recognized, chronic stress significantly increases risk for cardiovascular disease (examined here). To make matters worse, increased glucocorticoid secretion following activation of the HPA axis makes us reach those high fat foods (effects on metabolism and food choice examined here) (Finch & Tomiyama, 2014), further glomming our arteries, leading to a recipe for disaster when we throw high blood pressure into the mix. These pesky glucocorticoids can also kill cells that support immunity and our ability to fight bacteria and infectious invaders- it is no coincidence that colds increase during final exams! (Cohen and colleagues, 2012). This prolonged stress throws our bodies out of balance, leading to wear and tear and poor physical health outcomes (Romero & Wingfield, 2016).
Solution: avoid all stress and life will be good! Unfortunately, it is not that simple and as previously discussed a little stress is necessary for our species survival. Although our risk for experiencing stress is oftentimes out of our control, we can control the way we cope. As Sapolsky (2004) remarks, although we can’t control our parent’s genes or SES, we can change the way we cope with stress both psychologically and physically. For instance, maintaining a positive outlook (and avoiding rumination) in the face of adversity may contribute to psychological resilience, whereas exercise contributes physical resilience from the negative effects of stress. Furthermore, in an ideal world we increase control and predictability of our stressors and have a vast social support network to help during hard times. However, we don’t live in an ideal world (and those tasks will continue to pile in our inboxes). Good news is that we will eventually habituate to repeated stressors over time, and taking action to proactively manage stress (…breath in…breath out…don’t pick up that cookie!) can reduce health risks exacerbated by that wretched stress (Lipshitz et al. 2015). Here’s a fact, 80% of stress management is accomplished with the first 20% of effort- that is, deciding to make a change. Now that I have a diverse understanding of what stress is and what it can do to my emotions and heath- I vow to make that change!
Ayyagari, R., Grover, V., & Purvis, R. (2011). Technostress: technological antecedents and implications. MIS quarterly, 35(4), 831-858.
Finch, L.E., & Tomiyama, A.J. (2014). Stress-induced eating dampens physiological and behavioral stress responses. Nutrition in the Prevention and Treatment of Abdominal Obesity. Elsevier Inc.
Frost, R. L., & Rickwood, D. J. (2017). A systematic review of the mental health outcomes associated with Facebook use. Computers in Human Behavior, 76, 576-600.
Lazarus, R. S. (1999). Stress and emotion: A new synthesis. New York: Springer.
Lipschitz, J.M., Paiva, A.I., Redding, C.A., Butterworth, S., and Prochaska, J.O. (2015). Co-occurrence and coaction of stress management with other health risk behaviors. Journal of Health Psychology. 20(7), 1002-1012.
Romero, L.M., & Wingfield, J.C. (2016). Tempests, poxes, predators, and people: Stress in wild animals and how they cope. New York: Oxford University Press.
Sapolsky, R.M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York: Owl Book/Henry Holt and Co.,
Yehuda, R., & LeDoux, J. (2007). Response variation following trauma: a translational neuroscience approach to understanding PTSD. Neuron, 56(1), 19-32.