Why Stress is Dangerous: Types, Causes and Risks

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stressThere are two types of stress and most of us have experienced one or both, at times. There are many causes and more risks involved than you may realize, but the good news is that not all stress is dangerous and there are ways to lessen your stress and enjoy better health.

Acute Stress: Momentary help in times of danger

Acute stress is the term for what occurs when your body senses danger and adapts to the threat by making physical changes, enabling you to avoid greater potential harm. This protective mechanism, crucial to your safety and designed to protect you, causes your body to secrete chemicals and stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, in response to your thoughts and prepares your body for “fight or flight.”

For example, let’s say you’re crossing a street to meet your friend at the local coffee shop and notice a car quickly approaching. You see the car and understand the risks, which causes you to feel fear and anxiety (learned behaviors that we only feel when we decide something is dangerous or anxiety provoking). Your body adapts to this stress by secreting chemicals and hormones, sending messages to your heart, lungs and organs to prepare them to handle the crisis.

  • Your heart rate increases
  • Blood flow is diverted to muscles allowing for quick movement
  • Pupils dilate and more oxygen flows through your lungs for an extra burst of energy

These changes allow you to react quickly, enabling you to jump onto the curb to safety. Within a short period of time, your body calms down and things return to normal, allowing you to continue on to the meeting with your friend over your favorite cup of coffee. 

Chronic Stress: Unhealthy when left turned on

Chronic stress involves chemicals and hormones, which are only supposed to be released for only a brief moment of time. The stress response, once engaged, isn’t turned off. So, the glands that secrete these chemicals have no opportunity to replenish and restore themselves to pre-stress levels. Your body remains in a state of hyper-arousal, like a hot water tap left to run at full force, and hormones meant to help and protect you are over-secreted – and soon depleted. Eventually, you just run out of hot water!

Stress and the Immune System: Very closely linked

Your immune system protects you against illness and disease. When healthy and strong, it’s in fighting shape and will protect you against unwanted invasion. However, when you’re over-secreting chemicals because of chronic stress, your immune system is suppressed and your body can’t fight off invaders as effectively. The risks of illness, stress-related conditions and disease dramatically increase as a direct result of this stress and the ways we handle it.

  • Stress hormones and chemicals are released according to the way we think, feel and act.
  • The way we think, feel and act is based on our ideas, beliefs, value system, religious upbringing, personality, culture and past conditioning.
  • All of these variables determine how we are affected by stress because they create how we view the world around us.
  • Two people can view the same event very differently, based on their perspective.

Are you the type who handles the stress of being stuck in traffic by banging your head on the steering wheel, cursing and flooding in a sea of stress-induced hormones? Or do you see the time as a good time to listen to music, or maybe enjoy a quiet moment?

While we are all affected by stress differently, the better equipped we are to handle the stressors in life, the more we’ll be able to enjoy greater health and wellness benefits. The wear and tear that chronic, unrelenting stress can place to our bodies can be huge, so it’s important to get a handle on our stress.

Over time, the constant secretion of chemicals in your body also changes the chemistry of your cells. When hormones such as cortisol are depleted, common symptoms start to develop like fatigue, weight gain (especially in the mid section), loss of libido, sleep issues, anxiety, and even delaying healing to name a few.

Risks to Your Health Involve: Nervous system, digestive system, aging process, weight management, decision-making

Unfortunately, the same chemicals that protect you from immediate danger can hurt you when they continue to be released. To make matters worse, the body doesn’t know if the stress is real or merely imagined. It will secrete stress hormones whether you’re grieving over the death of a loved one, reacting to the craziness of your day, or replaying the pain, hurt or argument you had with someone years ago.

Stress becomes dangerous when we fail to realize that what we feel can lead to a physical response. It may be easier to accept that a physical response is due to a physical cause, but think about this:

  1. You hear something embarrassing or something that makes you angry.
  2. The message is heard and interpreted by you according to the way you’ve learned to think, feel and act.
  3. As a result, if embarrassed, you turn beet red or blush.
  4. If nervous about it, you feel “butterflies” and your hands get clammy.
  5. If you’re angry, you may feel “your blood boil” or experience a “sour stomach” or feel extreme heat coming off you.

These examples are physical reactions to emotions, when chemicals are secreted and an actual physical reaction to what you have experienced takes place.
Now add the stress of your work, trying to be a good spouse, parent, coworker, sibling, friend or neighbor. Add to that a need to be perfect, liked, approved, admired and respected. Mix this all together with the stress, strain and anxiety of past hurts, grievances and negative feelings (stemming from an outlook or perspective that doesn’t serve you well) – and you’ve got yourself a pretty good recipe for stress-related conditions, illnesses and disease!

While this may sound dangerous, the beauty is that you are in a wonderful position to stop the stress response and lessen the overall risks to your health and wellness. Remember, your stress may not change, but what can change – what must change – is the way you choose to react to it.

Photo from here, with thanks.

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February 2023