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The Problem With Chronic Stress

The human body hasn’t changed much in the past 100,000 years, but lifestyles certainly have. As a result, your stress response system is better suited to dealing with the kind of survival threats experienced by early man than it is for the ongoing complex stress of modern life. Survival threats, like escaping from a wild animal or defending a catch, required a short-term, physical “fight or flight” reaction. This is exactly what your stress response prepares you to do.

It sends out adrenal hormones that increase your heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen intake, blood sugar and mental focus, while also slowing or suppressing functions not critical to your immediate survival, like digestion, immune function and cellular growth and repair. This channels more energy and oxygen to your muscles and brain to make you alert and able to run or defend yourself.

The act of running away or fighting uses that extra energy and oxygen, allowing your body to quickly return to normal once you are safe. However, escaping from a demanding boss or defending your paycheck from daily expenses does not usually involve physical exertion. This leaves your body primed for action and in sustained stress mode with no physical activity to help rebalance it back to normal.

If your daily life is chronically stressful, your stress response ends up being almost constantly on – like an idling car stuck in high gear. Not only does this make it difficult to relax, but your blood sugar, insulin and blood pressure stay elevated, while your digestion, cellular growth and repair, and immune function stay suppressed for prolonged periods.

Over time, the consequences of this chronic stress state progress from mildly disruptive (trouble sleeping, indigestion, headaches, anxiety) to detrimental to your health (insulin resistance and other blood sugar issues, hormone imbalances, increased belly fat, cardiovascular issues, thyroid dysfunction, vulnerability to illness from reduced immune function, stomach and intestinal problems, poor nutrient absorption, inflammation, and accelerated aging, among others).

If you’ve noticed that you’re more absent-minded (losing keys, forgetting appointments), have trouble concentrating (have to read something two or three times), and feel down or moody, this can be chronic stress at work on your brain. Stress hormones directly affect areas of your brain involved in memory, concentration and emotion, as well as neurotransmitters, like serotonin, that send chemical messages from one part of your brain to another, and from your brain to the rest of your body. People who are stressed a lot often find they have trouble with memory, concentration and negative emotions.