From the time you wake up racing the clock to get ready for work, until the day’s end when you scroll through the latest news, you might face any number of ups and downs that could trigger stress, or what scientists call the “fight or flight” response from your sympathetic nervous system. Even when the feeling is fleeting — the dash to make the bus or a big meeting — it causes the release of the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, which ready you for action.
Your heart beats faster with stronger contractions; your muscles tense; you breathe faster; and your blood pressure goes up as certain blood vessels dilate to boost circulation. And when the stress passes — phew, you made it to your bus seat — your body readily returns to its normal state as the parasympathetic nervous system gives the all clear to turn off the stress hormones and switch to “rest and digest” mode.
The Important Role of Stress
Stress has mostly become a dirty word in modern times, synonymous with a feeling of mental overload and anxiety, but if you think of it in the framework of its evolutionary purpose, you can come to regard it more as a tool than an albatross. “It’s really about how we personify the stress and how we allow our body to react,” says Heather Moday, MD, author of The Immunotype Breakthrough: Your Personalized Plan to Balance Your Immune System, Optimize Health, and Build Lifelong Resilience. “Obviously there are things that happen to us that we can’t necessarily control, and we have this sympathetic stress response — that evolutionary response that, before we even really cognitively think about it, we jump out of the way of a car for example.”
It’s our later response that significantly dictates whether the stress hormones that come to our rescue stay elevated or not, notes Dr. Moday. And the good news, she says, is “we have much more control over that later response.”
How Stress Can Be Beneficial
“We misunderstand stress. We think stress is a bad thing and it’s not necessarily,” says Arielle Schwartz, PhD, a psychologist in Boulder, Colorado. “When our sympathetic nervous system or our fight or flight mode keys in, that’s okay. It’s going to simply mobilize us through the world — and we need that.” In other words, whether you want to go for a job interview or get on your yoga mat, there are any number of occasions when you need that sympathetic nervous system response to kick in. “We don’t want to just be in a parasympathetic state all the time,” says Schwartz. “It would actually not facilitate optimal health.”
You may be surprised to learn that the body naturally secretes the stress hormone cortisol throughout the day, with levels peaking at around 7 a.m. to help you tackle your to-dos and then declining until hitting a low point at midnight. In between, we can experience surges of cortisol in response to various mental or physical challenges. Exercise, for example, is perceived by the body as stress, but it is essential for our well-being in countless ways. Such acute bouts of stress actually help strengthen our body and immune system.
And the mere fact of having a lot of pressures to field does not fate us to a state in which anxiety remains humming on high. “There are many people out there who might have a really stressful life but they don’t worry about it. They tell themselves, I’m going to manage it. It’s going to be fine,” says Moday. That mindset can check our body’s stress response and make us more resilient.
When Anxiety Is Ongoing
What we want to avoid is the chronic kind of stress wherein the cortisol surge continues indefinitely, the type that comes from constant worry or tension. “It’s the hormone release that really causes the damage or the changes that occur to the body over time from stress,” explains Moday. Although cortisol acts as an anti-inflammatory in the body in small doses, it becomes a different story when levels stay elevated for long periods. “It flips: Cortisol actually starts down regulating some of our good immune responses,” she says. The negative trickle-down effects on our health are wide-ranging. Luckily, the tools to cope with and counteract stress are also in your hands.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, How To Beat Stress: The Ultimate Guide To Feeling Happier, in 2022.