By Thea Singer
Stress is a killer and a life force. How can you tell the good from the bad, and too little from too much?
Your company’s revenues are shrinking. Your kids need braces—and hundreds of thousands of dollars for college just down the road. Your aging father has landed in the hospital again. And now that idiot driver on your left is swerving into your lane as he yaks on his cell phone. You might just snap.
Stress, when it’s chronic or repeated, does more than unnerve us; it can make us physically sick. It dampens the immune system and dries out the digestive tract, setting the stage for disorders from irritable bowel syndrome to ulcerative colitis. It impairs memory and in extreme cases fuels anxiety. It can even gnaw away at the ends of chromosomes, thereby accelerating cellular aging.
It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that this villain is also—paradoxically—a wellspring of life. Without stress, we’d be as good as dead. We wouldn’t have the gumption to slalom down Whistler’s mountains to Olympic gold, to play Juliet to our Romeo, to ask the boss for a raise, or even to get out of bed.
That’s because stress in appropriate amounts is the very stimulation that keeps us engaged with the world moment to moment.
When the brain perceives a stimulus, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into gear. It tells the adrenal glands to release the first stress hormone, epinephrine (aka adrenaline). Epinephrine dilates the bronchial tubes in the lungs to make space for more oxygen and charges the heart, enabling more blood to push through. It dilates the blood vessels leading away from the heart, too, so that oxygenated blood can flow freely to where it’s needed most: the brain and the muscles, which must be ready to flee or fight.
Next, the hormone norepinephrine spurts from the nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. Norepinephrine constricts the veins leading to the heart so returning blood can slam more powerfully into the chamber and exit with even more force. It constricts the arteries leading to the skin, too, to slow down bleeding in the event of an injury.
Finally, the third—and major—stress hormone, cortisol, joins the party, also emanating from the adrenal glands, to mobilize cells’ stored energy and to keep the rations coming for the duration of the stressor. In nonemergency situations, cortisol follows the body’s circadian rhythms: It’s highest in the early morning—time to wake up—and lowest at night.
“Our goal isn’t a life without stress,” Stanford University neurobiologist Robert M. Sapolsky says. “The idea is to have the right amount of stress.” That means stressors that are short-lived and manageable.
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