How Stress Breaks Us Down

Stress is real and has real consequences on our health. Yes, everyone knows stress can feel bad, but when we remain in stressful situations we do not always have a clear idea about what chronic stress is doing to our bodies. Stress literally can be killing us. It is easy to place stress in the mental health category, and mental health is important and too easily neglected. Stress also affects physical health, literally breaking down your body until you develop illness. Here’s how it works.

First, think of your body as a machine and your organs as the parts that make it work. Now, think of blood as your internal transport system, taking nutrients, oxygen, energy, hormones etc to your organs so they can work the way they need to and keep your body running. When your body is in balance – you’re providing the proper maintenance and nothing has been broken or thrown off kilter –  everything works together to keep the machine/body running smoothly.

Now, our bodies have an emergency response system. This emergency response system is sometimes called “stress response” and “fight or flight” systems. When faced with something we perceive as threatening or as something we need to be concerned about, our bodies activate the emergency response system to make sure we are able to fight off or run away from danger. It’s like the NOS button in a racecar, giving our bodies the boost needed to save ourselves. Instead of nitrous oxide, our stress response system activates hormones like adrenalin into our bloodstream, which makes adjustments such as; redirecting our blood flow to the muscles in our arms and legs so they have enough oxygen and nutrients to run or fight; it causes our liver to release stored glucose so we can have energy in our blood to use for our ordeal; that blood that went to your muscles is redirected from your stomach, so digestion stops and your stomach may feel uncomfortable; your nervous system goes into overdrive, controlling your blood flow, eyes, ears, touch and other senses. These changes may save your life if you find yourself face to face with a hungry lion or an ex.

However, your stress response system does not know the difference between the threat caused by a hungry lion, your ex, your annoying coworker or slow moving traffic. It’s a one trick pony and reacts using the same hormones which cause the same changes in your body. Even if the level of stress is lower, it’s the same hormones causing the same changes at lower levels. Imagine the damage that would be done to a car if the NOS was activated every time you drive. Now imagine the damage done to the body if the emergency hormones are constantly in the bloodstream activating the body.

If you are constantly stressed out, your organs, nervous system, senses etc. are consonantly being over activated all day long. Our bodies are not made to handle that. So we experience what is called Allostatic Load, which refers to the wearing down of our organs and body because of the effect of chronic stress (stress that does not go away). This literally damages organs and contributes to diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, kidney problems, autoimmune diseases etc. We haven’t even touched on the psychological effects of chronic stress – anxiety, depression, memory problems, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, etc.

In the context of the world we live in, a world with unequal opportunities, systemic racism, classism, a world filled with injustices that affect people every day, it is no wonder that people of color often have higher rates of many of the diseases and problems I mentioned above. It is certain the stresses related to social injustice contribute to the health disparities that are so persistent between different groups of people.

Ryan McGuire photo
Photo by Ryan McGuire

In the context of our own lives, do not be like the man I overheard on the bus who said about his job “It’s literally killing me. Would be worthwhile if I could make some money.” Perhaps if our jobs and relationships are so stressful that they are “literally killing” you, it’s time to find help in either changing the situation to make it less stressful or getting out of that space. Find a counselor who can help you with coping skills, talk to a career coach who can help you find a niche that is fulfilling, work on finding ways you can reduce the stressors in your own life. I know for me this is what I have had to resort to, finding help and actively trying to change stressful situations for my own health and wellness. Prioritizing yourself, your wellbeing, your self-care is not selfish, it is necessary. Here’s hoping we can build for ourselves and each other a healthier, less stressful, more just world.


© 2016 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved