Our innate “fight or flight” reaction flips a switch in our bodies to activate the emergency mode when faced with threats. This is very helpful, life-saving even, when we are faced with a threat of a physical sort. We use this energy, this speed and concentration to either fight the enemy or flee to safety. Once the crisis has passed, the body naturally returns to its normal state.
Unfortunately, this stress response gets triggered not only by the physical threats we face, but also by mental threats. Our bodies go into high gear when we are worried about things, like losing a job, illness, death, financial issues — especially when we feel we have little or no control over these stressful events. The thought of not having control over any situation causes us to worry more, and therefore feel more stressed. Even daily challenges and demands can trigger this stress response. The mental threats not only trigger the stress response, but may also keep it going. The several issues that we worry about may continuously keep our bodies in emergency mode.
When we are in the emergency mode, the stress hormones disrupt almost all our body systems. This increases our risk for obesity, insomnia, digestive problems, heart disease, depression, memory impairment, physical illness and other complications.
Let us briefly look at different systems under stress:
Digestion: Stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and emptying of stomach. They also stimulate the colon and speed up the passage of contents. It is common to experience stomachache or diarrhea when stressed. In the long term, they can increase appetite and put us at risk for weight gain.
Immune system: The immunue system does a complex balancing act between an all-purpose emergency crew and more specialized units dealing with specific disease agents. Stress hormones prompt this system to focus on quickly responding to injuries and such while suppressing the immune system and making us vulnerable to infections and increasing the risk of autoimmune diseases. It may even flare up autoimmune conditions such as Lupus.
Nervous system: Certain byproducts of cortisol, a stress hormone, act as sedatives, creating an overall feeling of depression. If this goes on, they may cause severe depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and impending doom. These often result in sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, lack of interest in sex, and in the long term behavioral problems. It has been found that chronic activation of stress hormones may alter the operation and structure of brain cells that are critical for memory formation and function.
Cardiovascular system: Stress hormones can raise our heart rate and increase our blood pressure and blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels. These are risk factors for both heart disease and stroke.
Other systems: Stress worsens many skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, hives and acne. It can also trigger asthma attacks.