Let’s take a closer look at how the stress response works
. When your brain senses danger, your amygdala, the part of your brain that helps with emotional processing, sends an alarm signal to your hypothalamus. Acting as command central, your hypothalamus activates your sympathetic nervous system. This part of your autonomic nervous system leads to the release of adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) from your adrenal glands into your blood stream. All this happens in a split second. After adrenaline subsides, the second phase of your stress response kicks in. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis triggers your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol and keeps your sympathetic nervous system in high gear. This continues so long as you are faced with a threatening situation. There are two parts to your stress response—turning it on and turning it off. When a perceived threat is gone, your parasympathetic nervous system, the other arm of your autonomic nervous system, steps in to cool your body down. Your stress hormones go back to their normal levels. Without the latter relaxation phase of the stress response, stress can spiral into a chronic state. According to the American Psychological Association, stress is becoming a public health crisis
. Their survey shows that in America, 44% of people reported an increase in psychological stress in the past five years. The health consequences are compounded since the lifestyle and behavioral changes needed to mitigate stress often seem insurmountable in times of stress. For additional resources to learn more about stress and stress management, you can visit the American Psychological Association’s site
Stress can even take years off your life. In this 2004 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, Dr. Elissa Epel and her colleagues looked at telomere length in 58 biological mothers who either cared for a healthy child (“control mothers”) or a chronically ill child (“caregiver mothers”). The women who felt the most perceived stress had telomeres that were shorter on average by the equivalent of a whole decade
of aging compared to mothers that felt the least stressed. Fortunately, you can dampen your stress response by changing how you perceive a stressful event. Rather than trying to eliminate stress, which is an inescapable part of everyday life, you can build your resilience to stress. Stanford health psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, shares in her TED talk
on how staying socially connected and helping others can help you adapt to stress. Other powerful habits are learning how to practice gratitude
, and optimism.