We live in a busy world where the list of daily goals and responsibilities seems to never end.
This can make our stress level go up significantly. How bad is stress for us? Can stress actually kill us? Seen from a biological point of view, stress is totally normal. If you happen to be in an emergency situation like a fire or say a bear attack, your stress hormones should activate and give you the rush needed to escape into safety.
How about when these hormones are triggered by a psychological emergency situation, like not having enough money to pay for the mortgage? Animals seem to have it easier than us since their bodies tend to lower their stress response significantly after the danger is avoided. Humans on the other hand cannot seem to find the off switch to these hormones.
Even when we are not facing a life and death situation our brains are consistently pumping our body with stress hormones, increasing our heart rates, tensing our muscles, and causing spasms in our intestines. In this overworking society that we have created, people that seem to be perfectly healthy tend to die out of nowhere.
After being identified from different studies, these sudden heart attacks or strokes were linked to stress. How does this happen? The stress hormone is cortisol, which helps redirect energy and blood flow to the parts of the body where it is needed and away from non-essential functions.
With chronic exposure to cortisol, our bodies start creating problems. Our immune systems start weakening; we are more prone to inflammation as our white blood cells count decreases. There are a few pieces of evidence showing that stress might be responsible for the development of cancer in one’s body.
A study performed on monkeys showed that monkeys with higher exposure to stress actually had more clogged arteries. This means that the heart doesn’t get the right amount of blood needed during a stress response and this can cause a heart attack. Our brains are also vulnerable to the stress response. Another experiment done with mice showed that the brains of mice exposed to higher levels of stress had smaller cells and fewer branch extensions than normal mice.
In humans stress particularly affects the parts of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Constant sleep deprivation and stress can cause you to have trouble remembering the important tasks that you have to perform.
It all starts in our DNA. Our chromosomes contain small protein packages called telomeres which decrease with aging and eventually cause cells to stop duplicating. Another study shows that stress might actually affect telomeres shortening causing our DNA to get damaged more quickly.
How do we stop or reduce these stress reactions from happening? Taking part in positive social interactions can release oxytocin which lowers your cortisol levels and makes you feel more relaxed. So next time that you feel like you are stressed out about life, call a loved one. You don’t have to go through it alone. Interacting with someone who makes you smile, might actually save you.