Stress is becoming more and more common in modern society but what does this word even mean? There are a myriad of different stresses and whilst depression and anxiety are becoming more acknowledged and further diagnosed as a mental health disorder, many find themselves saying daily ‘I’m just feeling so stressed”. As a general rule stress in this context refers to a feeling of being under mental or emotional pressure or strain, but how much is too much and can stress be a good thing?
Stress can be loosely put into two camps. Eustress (good stress) and distress (bad stress) (As coined by a Canadian biochemist Hans Selye of McGill University in Montreal in 1936). Of course stress is a part of our lives and can actually help us in many ways. It is linked to our evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ reflex which, whilst we do admittedly no longer have to fight wild animals for resources on a daily basis, may still have already saved your life on a number of occasions. When this response is triggered the Hypothalamus (a small area of your brain) responds causing the adrenal gland to release a hormone called ‘cortisol’ which is sometimes referred to as the ‘stress hormone’. As the reflex is triggered, the body releases cortisol and prepares to use this to aid it in either the ‘fight’ or the ‘flight’. The reason this can cause problems for so many people, is that whilst your body is in this state, glucose levels rise and so do the levels of substances that help your body repair damaged systems. As your body focuses on these essential areas for fight or flight, non-essential systems get shut down. Your body essentially needs the threat to be over before the hormone levels can return to normal. If they don’t, then the excess cortisol can start wreaking havoc on your bodies systems and increase glucose levels in the bloodstream, contributing to illnesses such as heart attacks, strokes, digestive problems and depression. Elevated cortisol levels can also inhibit your memory and your ability to learn as well as inhibiting your immune responses and it can even lower your bone density or cause you to gain weight. With stress so prevalent in modern society some people, sometimes without even realising it, can be living in a constant state of heightened arousal with your fight or flight reflex constantly ‘turned on’.