Google explains stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” A common misconception for people is that stress is only a mental problem. However, stress is a chain reaction that occurred in the brain, and most importantly, long-term stress, which can be referred to as “chronic” or “toxic” stress, can significantly harm the body.
As the communication center, the brain has multiple ways to respond and protect the body against negative emotions by releasing chemicals. “When someone experiences a stressful event...a distress signal [will be] sent from the amygdala to the hypothalamus [which] communicates with the body...to give the person energy...” Harvard Health Publications of Harvard Medical School explains. This series of commands eventually leads to the release of cortisol —a type of hormone. Also, The National Institute of Mental Health, known as NIMH in the United States, defines stress as only “[a] response to any demands”; nevertheless, what ultimately decides the physical harm of stress is its duration, intensity, and the quality and speed of treatment.
Normally, cortisol levels will decrease when the stressful event is over; however, chronic stress, stress that does not end, can cause health problems. When the body is under pressure for a long time, more cortisol will be released, and a high level of cortisol can negatively affect brain cells, synapse regulation (which plays a role in the formation of memory), and even the size of the brain. Furthermore, the size of the amygdala will increase; therefore, the brain will become more receptive to stress. While chronic stress impairs cognitive functions, it catalyzes heart diseases, high blood pressure, and diabetes as well. Therefore, understanding how harmful stress is is essential to maintain physical health.
As previously stated, a little bit of stress is not problematic at all; however, chronic stress causes long-term negative effects on the body. Sometimes, stress is worse than people think. Several studies have shown that to counteract the effect of cortisol, helping others is a good way since the brain will release oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine to boost our mood.
Written by Yuning Gu