Stress is a deleterious experience that wreaks havoc on every organ in the body. Its effects may be invisible at first but it can make an otherwise healthy person very unhealthy. It is not a one time experience that exists in a vacuum but in fact, experiencing stress in the past actually affects your experience of it in the future, just as in the case of allergies.
If we are allergic to peanuts, enough exposure to the food sensitizes us to it so that the slightest exposure to peanuts, such as smelling them or touching them, brings on an allergic reaction of hives, itchiness and discomfort. Similar to an allergy, where exposure to the allergen once makes you more sensitive to the allergen every subsequent time, the same is true for stress. Research has shown that we can become sensitized to stress and every single person on the planet has the propensity for this.
For example, experiencing high stress due to academic pressure for one exam results in a series of chemical reactions in the brain and the body that cause us to respond as if we were fighting for our lives. Every time this stress is experienced our body becomes more and more sensitized so that after a while, simply forgetting a lucky pencil at home or missing a phone call triggers the exact same stress response. While these are examples of everyday episodes of stress, our brains become trained to overreact Suddenly, the mundane tasks that are not going smoothly like not finding your car keys or realizing the dryer was never turned on are interpreted by our brains are life-threatening situations.
Our body and brain cannot tell the difference between actual danger, such as being chased by a rabid dog, and the danger we think we are in due to psychological stress, such as preparing for a presentation. To our brains, both situations are equally stress-inducing and elicit the same response.
Research has identified that our brains tend to have a stress-meter or a thermostat for stress so that we do not automatically overreact to something as small as burning your grilled cheese sandwich. But when sensitization to stress occurs, the thermostat is set lower so that the responses typically reserved for life-threatening situations are now seen after trivial life events.
This sensitization affects our physical brain chemistry, indicating that once we are sensitized we are physically incapable of responding to stress appropriately in the future. This speaks to the importance of minimizing stress at a young age, especially while the brain is still developing. High levels of stress can permanently change the brain structure in childhood and adolescence, leaving the person unable to handle normal, everyday stressors as they grow.
Stress has serious consequences for the body such as increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Learning how to properly manage stress from an early age is crucial to the emotional development of children, teens and adults, as well as to the physical health of each individual. If you are experiencing high and/or chronic stress, now is the time to stop before you make permanent changes to your body.
How do you reduce stress?