Most of us know it’s no good to be stressed. We’ve heard that this is bad for our health and we know it can make us unhappy.
But why exactly is this? What specifically is happening in the body and the brain when we’re stressed? And did you know that sometimes stress can actually be a very good thing?
The Fight or Flight Response
At its most visceral, stress is characterized by the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is how the body reacts to danger and extreme stress: by releasing a combination of different hormones and neurotransmitters, each of which will bring about different physiological changes in the body and brain.
Those neurotransmitters and hormones include: dopamine, adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, serotonin, testosterone and glutamate. These are all ‘excitatory’ neurotransmitters that increase our brain activity and make us more alert, more focussed and better able to remember the details of whatever is happening around us.
Our body also goes through several changes at this point: our heartrate increases, our breathing gets faster, our muscles contract, our pupils dilate and generally we become better able to perform physically. This means that we can either run from danger, or fight an opponent and stand a better chance of winning. Blood is directed away from our immune system and digestion and towards our muscles and brain and our blood even thickens so that it will be more likely to clot if we get injured.
So stress isn’t a purely bad thing. If you really were in physical danger, then this response could genuinely save your life. But the problems emerge when the fight or flight response doesn’t go away. This is what happens when we’re stressed about debt, taxes, or work. We remain in a constantly excited state and this means we can go a long time with suppressed immune function and digestion. Ultimately, this begins to make it more likely that we will become ill or malnourished!
This is why we generally think of stress as being bad and it’s why using something like mindfulness meditation can be so useful.
When Stress is Good
But stress can also be a good thing. That’s the case when, for example, you need a little bit of motivation to get something done. Low level chronic stress is the same stress that makes us revise for exams, save money for the future and generally take action to try and avoid negative outcomes. In this context, the stress is called ‘eustress’ and is highly desirable.
Finally, stress can also be a good thing if you’re able to harness it for good. If you can see your situation not as being dangerous but as being a fun challenge, then you can enter something known as a ‘flow state’. Here we enjoy heightened focus, stronger muscles and improved reactions – but none of the negatives like negative thoughts.
Stress isn’t one response but is rather a whole spectrum of different states that are moderated by different levels of specific neurotransmitters and hormones.