I’ve said it. You’ve said it. Your partner has said it. You overheard a kid say it. Your cat may even be thinking it (but probably not).
First let’s go over why stress is bad news…
NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF STRESS
Feeling anxious and overwhelmed
You can thank your fight-or-flight response for this. Stress can be a great motivator, but it’s not meant to be used long-term.
As part of your fight-or-flight response, your adrenal glands release cortisol and adrenaline to get you ready to…well, fight or run. It’s obvious that this would not be helpful for restful sleeping.
Uh-oh. Why did you walk into the room? What’s the name of the person you just met in the elevator? You can blame this on that same cortisol release, as well as any lack of sleep you may be suffering from.
Loss of libido
So do you know what cortisol actually is? It’s a hormone. If you’re in a chronic stress response, your body needs energy to create cortisol and it gets this at the expense of the creation of your sex hormones–estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. This is not good news for your sex drive–or drive, in general.
When stressed, your body has more important things to consider than your digestion. Once again, this isn’t a problem in the short term, but over time, poor digestion can lead to irritable bowel syndrome, damage to your intestinal lining, and even harmful changes to your microbiome.
Belly fat and sugar/fat/salt cravings
Do you know what else cortisol does? It tells your body to store energy in case the emergency persists. It does that by turning what you eat into abdominal fat for safe keeping. Because this fuel is getting stored instead of used, you feel like you need more energy, especially in the quick-use form of sugar and carbohydrates. This helps explain your strong urge for comfort food.
Frequent colds, sicknesses, and more
Long-term stimulation of the stress response impairs your immune system, leading to the tendency to catch every bug that comes your way. Over time, your immune response may backfire in the form of allergic responses and other autoimmune diseases.
Continuous activation of the stress response leads to chronic inflammation in your body. You probably know that’s a bad thing, but you might not know that it can lead to premature aging, also called inflamm-aging. Think loose skin, lines and wrinkles, and all of the invisible health problems that go with it.
Over time, these chronic effects worsen, but wasn’t the above list depressing enough?
Okay, are you ready for the solution?
Don’t believe any of the above
When you’re feeling stressed out, remind yourself that your stress response is there for a reason. It’s true! The surge of adrenaline prepares you for fight or flight—or a big presentation. Thank it for doing its job and move on.
That’s it. It’s not that the negative effects of stress listed above aren’t real. They are. They’ve been explored and tested for years in multiple lab settings. But the big takeaway is: People suffer from those effects only when they believe they do.
Remember that you need stress in your life. Really! It keeps you alert. It makes life exciting. The problem is when it becomes chronic and that comes mostly from our perspective on it, not the actual stress itself.
But wait–there’s another aspect to it that doesn’t get enough press.
One big positive effect of stress (that women are especially good at)
The tend-and-befriend response While I wrote a lot about cortisol above, there’s another hormone that we release under stress–oxytocin. Oxytocin is associated with caregiving and attachment. It also helps reduce fear and induce relaxation.
Having strong social connections has been shown to have an outstandingly positive affect on our health, and women tend to be wired for this. Instead of turning to a plate of cookies when you’re stressed, why don’t you reach out to a friend?
You can always reach out to me, too!