We’re not going to tell you to rid stress from your life. For starters, it’s probably not possible: Even if you spent your days lying in a hammock, there’d be something to worry about. Secondly, stress isn’t always a bad thing.
While that might come as a big surprise to most people, think back to the times when you felt an overwhelming amount of stress — perhaps when you were studying for an exam or preparing for a big presentation. Most likely, your stress pushed you to carry out your goals.
“For us to accomplish anything, it takes some kind of stress,” says Tom Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. “A little bit of stress helps get us motivated.”
The Stress Response
The body’s stress response can be triggered by a surprisingly wide array of situations and problems, from sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic, to being challenged in a meeting, to losing sleep. Even endless ruminating over the past and fears about the future can set it off.
Once it’s triggered, your brain and hormones move quickly. First, your hypothalamus, an almond-size control center deep within your brain, sends messages to your adrenal glands. These glands then send cortisol (the “stress hormone”) and adrenaline, the chemical messenger that causes you to jump when someone surprises you, through your bloodstream. The hormones pull sugar from your liver and fatty acids from your fat cells to push your muscles into action.
As the stress cascade continues, your heart races, your breath shortens and your pupils dilate. Adrenaline squashes your appetite so you can concentrate. Finally, stress hormones help your brain take photographlike pictures of what’s happening at that very instant — perhaps so you will never forget it.
It might be a comfort to know that your body’s stress response is perfectly natural, as hardwired as feeling hungry or tired. The fight-or-flight response helped our ancestors run from tigers and survive famines.
Today, when those types of threats are fewer, Dr. Morledge says that some of us — particularly retirees — could stand a bit of productive stress (note the word productive). “Adding the good kind of stress is basically adding meaningful challenges to our lives,” he explains. “Projects and deadlines energize people.”
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