Too much stress doesn’t just mess with your head.(Photo: Stocksy/Robert Kohlhuber)
You’ve probably heard that some stress is good for you. Maybe it’s pressure from your dad, the college basketball star, to do well in this week’s big game. Or perhaps it’s the weight of an impending deadline nudging you to finish a big project.
Stress can be a powerful tool, unavoidable and beneficial at times, according to Robert London, MD, a practicing psychiatrist for more than three decades and a national columnist for Elsevier/Frontline.
“Short-term stress can be valuable in situations that require an immediate response,” he tells Yahoo Health. “When you’re preparing for an exam, the anxiety you feel will motivate you to focus on your work— or stress can help push you when you’re trying a new activity where you may be fearful, producing a ‘live-saving,’ flight-or-fight response when you feel you’re in immediate danger.”
But acute stress and chronic stress can invoke a sense of danger — and some serious effects on the body. From crying to sweating, panic attacks to mental breakdowns — and even physical illness — relentless anxiety can swing a person into a tizzy. (Think: extreme responses to a disaster or traumatic event, or celebrities who have crumbled under the spotlight’s glare.)
Stress As A Signal Of Danger
Biologically speaking, since caveman days, our bodies have been primed to respond to stressors indicating danger — even though “danger” today no longer includes saber-tooth tigers, says Diane Robinson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at UF Health Cancer Center - Orlando Health.
If you don’t immediately tap into calming powers after a stressful situation — meditation, yoga, sleep, whatever works for you — your body will enter fight-or-flight mode. “With intense stress on a short-term basis, your body thinks there might be a threat, which triggers a release of chemicals,” Robinson tells Yahoo Health. “You’ve got fast-acting adrenaline affecting every organ in the body. Your cortisol levels are rising. At the same time, the autonomic nervous system is also triggered.”