Stress is a natural response to a threat – it is a part of your body’s alarm system that is meant to protect you against danger. In the past a dangerous situation may have involved being attacked by a predator (say, a saber tooth tiger), but modern life seems to put increasing demands on all of us and stress is, for many, almost constant. Unfortunately long-term stress puts your body in a state of constant alarm.
The Fight-or-Flight Response
When your natural alarm system perceives a threat, your brain tells your body to react: this is called a “fight-or-flight” response. Thousands of years ago this response would have enabled you to either fight the saber tooth tiger or run for your life. In a fight-or-flight situation your body will release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol is also known as the stress hormone.
Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
Cortisol increases glucose levels in the blood and it suppresses or slows down many body systems, such as the immune, digestive and reproductive systems (these systems would not be necessary in a fight-or-flight situation). The other hormone released in a stressful situation, adrenaline, increases blood pressure and heart rate. The stress response in the body also affects parts of the brain that are related to mood.
The idea is that after the fight-or-flight situation is over, your body systems return to normal. However if you are constantly stressed, your body is always in the alarm state. Being continuously in a fight-or-flight state can have severe effects on your health.
Typical signs of stress include headaches, muscle tension, stomach problems, changes in sex drive, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, changes in eating patterns or frequent colds and flus. Stress symptoms are individual; some people get depressed, tired and want to sleep all the time, some people are anxious, irritable and cannot sleep.
Continuing stress can cause many long-term health problems:
- sleeping problems
- digestive problems
- heart disease
- memory problems
- skin problems
- weakened immune system
Everyone reacts differently to events that cause stress. Because stressful situations and events will always be a part of life, it is important to recognize what the main stressors (things that cause stress) are in your life, to learn to control your response to stressful events and to take care of yourself when you are under stress. If you learn to pay attention to your stress symptoms, you can also learn to prevent and to manage stress naturally.
The Mayo Clinic: Stress: Constant stress puts your health at risk (online article)
The International Federation of Aromatherapists: The Role of Aromatherapy in Stress Management (opens a PDF file)
The International Federation of Aromatherapists: Aromatherapy and its Role in Relieving Stress (opens a PDF file)
Photo: Sasha Wolff