Stress seems to be the modern day reason for most of the ills that we have to contend with in our day to day lives. But why is this? Do we have no way out or can stress be managed? Is stress necessary or is it just a major problem that occurs to us for no reason at all?
So is stress necessary?
Stress is the body’s response to handling a life or death situation or in other words a situation where a fight or flight response is necessary. Let’s imagine for a moment walking down a dark, lonely road at night when suddenly you hear very heavy footsteps coming up fast behind you. You turn back to see who it is and you see a fairly large man coming up fast behind you and he doesn’t look too friendly! Get the picture.
In a situation like this what happens is that a part of the brain called the ‘amygdala’ gets activated. The amygdala belongs to the primitive part or reptilian part of the brain so called because reptiles also have it. The amygdala is basically only concerned with survival and tries to activate all the body’s resources in order to survive the potentially harmful and life threatening situation. So the amygdala gets activated and in turn activates the adrenal glands and also gets the heart to pump faster. Why pump faster? So that there is more blood supplied to the muscles enabling us to fight or turn around and run away really fast so that we can survive this life threatening situation! So you see the ‘stress’ response is necessary to handle a situation like this.
The down side
Ever been in the situation of walking into an exam hall feeling fairly nervous as you haven’t studied too much, and you feel you may not do too well. You sit down at the table … the exam paper is distributed … you look at the paper … and your mind goes blank. You even forget the stuff you had studied and really knew. No sooner the exam is over … you go out to the garden and relax with some friends … after some time you realize that you actually knew or know the answers to many of the questions that were asked … but just didn’t know it when the paper was in front of you! Sound familiar!
How about getting on stage to make a speech having practiced it many times and then just freezing where nothing at all comes out!
Several times while performing with ‘The Revelations’ where I was not very confident of knowing the words of a song I have made sure and practiced it over and over.
Unfortunately it is the words of this very song that I have messed up while on stage … maybe because I am so conscious of not knowing the words and am trying to make a special effort to remember them. On the contrary when I don’t think about the words at all but just concentrate on performance and having a good time … I have never forgotten a single word!
We needlessly put ourselves under stress and our body and mind reacts in the same way
Going back to the exam example … what has happened is that we had put ourselves under considerable stress prior to the exam and the body has treated the exam like another life threatening situation … which actually it isn’t. It is we who are the cause of it … when we get too agitated over some experiences … our brain thinks that this too is a life threatening situation as we seem to be generating the same type of thoughts like fear, panic, anxiety, etc. So the brain and therefore the body starts acting in the same way that it would as part of the stress response. While some parts of our senses are heightened; the functions of some parts of the brain are actually reduced.
Why don’t we remember stuff when we are ‘stressed’?
The reason for this is that a hormone called ‘cortisol’ is also released when the stress response is activated and this has the effect of reducing or inhibiting the actions of a part of the brain called the ‘hippocampus’. The ‘hippocampus’ could be called the librarian of the brain which is responsible for routing & storing new information we process which we want to store; and also for pulling out information we have already stored when necessary. So if the hippocampus’ actions are reduced or slowed or inhibited it means that we are not able to remember stuff we want to … when stress levels are high.
Prolonged or chronic stress
If stress is a way of life … meaning we are always stressed … it can be quite a problem … possibly leading to many health issues amongst which is high blood pressure, memory loss, heart problems, etc. So it is definitely not a good idea to have chronic stress.
So that is an overview of stress, why it occurs, why it is necessary and also the downside when we are needlessly ‘stressed’.
Next week we will discuss how stress can be managed and reduced when not necessary so don’t go away ok!