Stress is extremely complex. In our day-to-day life, we generally don’t acknowledge or consider the vast range of causes and effects of stress. We know that loss of a loved one is a traumatic event, which causes great grief and that public speaking is an uncomfortable situation for most, eliciting heightened anxiety. However, we tend to overlook the complexities of how and why stress makes us feel and function the way it does. Even getting down to the definition of what “stress” is, is complex. It varies by individuals and by species, making it wildly interesting but difficult to study. So, bravo to previous researchers who have contributed to our knowledge of stress, because at one point or another, it influences all living species on earth.
Stress can be both physical and psychological in nature. Understanding what elicits a stress response is simple if you are studying wild animals- either threat or injury. In this case, the body’s stress response is extremely adaptive and efficient at mobilizing actions necessary to fight or flee. However, as Sapolsky (2004) reminded me, as humans, we are one of the only species that can conjure up a stressor purely in our minds. Additionally, we can do this not only in anticipation of an event or experience that has previously or will likely elicit negative emotions; during such event; or even by recalling the event from memory. Although as cognitively advanced species, when we hear this it is not at all surprising and seems obvious. Yet, when we actually consider what this means, it is eye opening. Reflecting on the extreme levels of anxiety I felt both in preparation for, and during delivery of my first-year project still brings about some mild stressful feelings. However, when I try to fathom what it would be like to run for my life from a predator that is trying to eat me, or shoot an enemy before he shoots me, this mild stress I felt seems extremely trivial. I was not facing imminent threat (other than maybe some threat to my ego due to Rich’s long winded, confusing questions), but still in that moment my body was engaging the same physiological response that both wild animals and soldiers experience in far more dangerous situations. That is what is so fascinating about stress. As Lazarus (1999) notes, whether a situation induces a stress response or negative emotions is dependent upon how that individual appraises the situation.We hear all the time that stress is relative, which is perfectly illustrated in this previous statement. Whether we are running for our life, or worrying about a future exam, it is the meaning we construct about what we are experiencing that drives our stress reactions.
Stress affects our body. Sure, we are all aware of this if we have ever experienced a state of sadness or anxiety. You feel lethargic, or feel your heart racing out of your chest. However, besides the immediate physiological response we are consciously aware of, our stress response elicits a myriad of effects within our body oftentimes unbeknownst to us. Say you are sitting at your desk for hours on end racing to finish a project before a looming deadline. In the moment you may be aware of your heart racing, or your palms sweating. Yet, it may take you hours to realize that you haven’t eaten anything all day, as the actions of norepinepherine and CRF have suppressed your appetite. You may come to this realization after a few hours, but it may take you a few weeks or months to realize that your reproductive system has ceased to function properly and you haven’t gotten your period in months. Or that a cut on your leg still hasn’t healed due your suppressed immune system. The general public has some awareness that stress can exacerbate illness, and more severely lead to heart disease. Yet, we oftentimes overlook just how detrimental chronic and prolonged stress states can be to our bodies. It is fascinating, yet terrifying! Understanding the physiological effects of stress on our bodies and learning effective strategies to cope with such stress would undoubtedly be beneficial for our health.