The effects of chronic stress

This post is also available in Dutch.

Succeeding at work, taking care of family, managing a household… Many people are under a lot of pressure to perform well in all aspects of their lives. Our busy schedules do not leave much room for rest and relaxation. What effects does this fast-paced lifestyle have on us?


Image by LaurMG, CC BY-SA 3.0

Everyone experiences stress, at least occasionally. Stress is a type of physical and psychological tension that occurs when we feel threatened. If we consider way back when, a threat might have consisted of a predator for our ancestors. These days, we are more likely to feel threatened by daily stressors such as pressure to perform well at work. Stress is normal, and a certain degree of stress can even improve performance (read about the Yerkes-Dodson law for more on this). Nevertheless, what happens when stress levels get too high, and we do not receive the occasional relief induced by rest and relaxation?

The body’s response to stress

Stress causes increased physiological activity in the body, also termed arousal by scientists. Shortly after a stressful experience, the nervous system triggers the production of neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine, which support our fight-or-flight response.  This is a defensive response that occurs when we perceive an immediate threat. A slower physical response is produced by a set of three organs working together: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. The hypothalamus, an area buried deep inside the brain, produces a series of reactions that tells the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Among other things, cortisol increases blood pressure and blood sugar levels, which physically prepares us to deal with a potential threat. However, cortisol also helps to regulate other bodily and brain processes such as: learning, memory, emotions, sleep-wake patterns and the immune system.

Effects of prolonged stress

Prolonged stress, where high levels of cortisol are continually present in our bloodstream, is associated with health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular diseases. Stress can also influence mental health issues such as burnout, depression and anxiety disorders (watch this interesting  TED-video for more on the subject). Some brain areas are especially vulnerable to prolonged stress because they contain a substantial number of receptors that are sensitive to stress hormones. These areas show structural and functional changes in response to stress. One of these vulnerable areas is the hippocampus, which is important for learning and memory processes. It has been shown that prolonged stress is associated with a smaller hippocampus and deteriorating memory.

Prevent damage due to prolonged stress

The way we cope with stress can affect the way we experience stressful situations, and may even reduce stress. There are several ways to cope with stress effectively. For example, one study investigated the effects of yoga on stress. The researchers compared two groups: women who did not practice yoga (the control group) and women who practiced yoga twice a week for 90 minutes. After three weeks, the women who had been practicing yoga had lower levels of cortisol, and reported less stress and anxiety compared to the women in the control group, who did not practice yoga.

Yoga is just one way to help you cope with stress. Meditating, going on walks and exercising are other activities that help lower cortisol levels and manage the effects of prolonged stress. Have you considered adding a weekly yoga session to your schedule?

This blog was written by Mahur. Editing by Angelique.

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