Though some of the effects of stress are still hotly debated within the medical and psychological communities, there are some that are broadly agreed on. Rapid heartbeat, raised blood pressure, a rise in blood sugar level and a lower digestive rate are just a few of the physiological effects of stress.
The psychological effects, though sometimes more subtle, are important too. Increased stress, especially when it lasts over time, often leads to irritability. A person will be more quick-tempered and easy to anger. He or she will be more impatient, and more inclined to fear the future while feeling less able to cope with the present. People who are stressed tend to find it harder to concentrate and have greater difficulty making decisions.
These two realms are not unrelated. The hypothalamus and the pituitary gland are two brain components that lead the charge during stressful events. They release a substance called ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) that stimulates the adrenal gland, near the kidney, to release cortisol. Natural levels of cortisol rise and fall during the day, but an excess can contribute to the “flight or fight” response that we experience during stress.
That can lead to neck muscle tension, stomach and bowel upset and a host of other effects. There are studies that suggest that if the stressful state persists it can lead to weakening of the immune system. That contributes to more frequent colds and other bad health effects.
High stress can cause a shortened attention span, less efficient memory recall, lowered objectivity and other cognitive problems. As dire thoughts race around the mind, there is less focus on solving life’s daily challenges in rational way. Moodiness, unreasonable anger, unwarranted feelings of injustice and other emotional consequences often follow.
The results of this are too often depression, apathy, crying in the absence of a specific cause, increased fear of failure and an overall sense of doom. But those are extremes and they are by no means inevitable.
There is sometimes a vicious cycle set up. The conflict between “I must” and “I can’t,” which is an essential element in stress, can lead to greater likelihood that, indeed, one can’t. That loss of confidence in one’s efficacy in dealing with life’s challenges can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that too is not inevitable.
By focusing on the factors that led to stress, evaluating them realistically and keeping a sense of perspective about their consequences, stress can be reduced and even eliminated before it becomes a chronic problem. That, in turn, helps reduce the occasions when a minor problem leads to major stress, even in the short term.