Ignoring stress is not a good idea.
Through natural selection over many thousands of years, stress has come about to optimally survive in an environment of constant danger.
As a whole, stress is an ancient reflex and mechanism found in all animals and even plants. Excessive stress affects life-necessary bodily functions such as our immune system and digestion. With stress, chemical changes happen in the brain that affect the body and could prove fatal.
And that has worked just fine for millennia. Suddenly you find yourself face-to-face with a predator or a member of your own species that has its sights set on you, and you have to react as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Fast means there is no time to think, and you have to react in less than a second. In such cases, the autonomic nervous system takes control.
Efficient means that you are almost immediately in optimal condition to fight or flee.
Read on to understand why ignoring stress actually shouldn’t even be an option to consider.
Table of Contents
- 1 Ignoring stress: Introduction
- 2 Beware of fight or flight
- 3 Excessive brooding causes prolonged production of stress hormones
- 4 Burnout and stress at work
- 5 The impact of the September 11 attacks
- 6 Self-control versus the social ladder
- 7 Ignoring stress: Conclusion
Ignoring stress: Introduction
Many wild predators are no longer encountered, yet even now, you can experience this primal instinct, for example, if you are mugged or involved in a traffic accident.
When we feel our lives are in danger, our heart rate immediately goes up, and blood is pumped to our muscles that allow us to fight or run for our lives.
It is a true miracle of nature that all happens in a few seconds.
Our nerve cells alert the brain that there is danger. Signals are sent out to the adrenal glands, among others, to produce hormones, which spread through our bodies via the blood in no time and trigger a waterfall of reactions.
Beware of fight or flight
In the face of danger or things we perceive as threatening, 2 systems play an essential role:
- The autonomic nervous system
- The HPA axis
Autonomic nervous system
The autonomic nervous system consists of a parasympathetic branch, which is active when we are at rest, and a sympathetic branch, which becomes active when signals of danger or threat arise.
This releases the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine, which spread rapidly through the body via the blood and prepare us to fight or flee.
Our heart starts beating faster, and the blood supply to body functions that are not vital at that moment decreases. This gives our muscles as much blood (and thus energy) as possible.
As a result, you may literally turn pale with fright.
The HPA axis (which stands for Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal Axis) is a system in which a signal is sent to the hypothalamus (a part of our brain) in response to danger.
That, in turn, sends a signal to the pituitary gland, which signals the adrenal glands to make cortisol.
Three hormones in the bloodstream
Through these two systems, three hormones are released into the bloodstream. We also call these stress hormones.
Occasional stress is not a problem at all and is even necessary for survival.
However, when our excessive and especially prolonged stress causes us to generate non-stop stress signals and produce stress hormones, even life-necessary bodily functions such as our immune system and digestion can be affected.
Excessive brooding causes prolonged production of stress hormones
Murders, serious accidents, robberies, war, and terrorist attacks can cause intense fear. However, in practice, these are not the greatest dangers facing modern man.
Many more people are now dying of a silent killer: chronic stress. Ignoring stress is ignoring a murderer.
Chronic stress is a silent killer
Chronic stress is not so much based on acute objective dangers but instead on the subjective experience of stress in the form of uncertainty, feeling threatened, and worrying about what might go wrong.
It was not that everything was better in the past. Still, much is expected of us to achieve and maintain a comfortable way of life.
Sometimes people voluntarily undergo a form of modern slavery to meet their standard of living and associated financial demands.
But money is far from the only thing that keeps people awake at night.
Sometimes it can also be well-intentioned, positive values that pressure us.
For example, we want to be good parents, good siblings, collegial employees, and cheerful friends. We also want to live comfortably.
On top of that, we want to experience exciting vacations, have fun, relaxing moments, etc. But getting all this done involves quite a bit of stress.
Humans can perceive more than only immediate danger through their ability to think. Namely, unlike animals, humans can also picture possible dangers in the future, which increases the number of stressors considerably.
Things from the past can also give rise to mice (mental chatter), where frustrating or frightening thoughts take hold of you. In that case, you are engaged in brooding or rumination.
Adverse effects of fretting
However, excessive fretting has adverse effects on your health because it causes mild to moderate but prolonged stress that rarely solves the problem.
Each thought causes chemical changes and can be thought of as mini-pills that can improve or sabotage your health and well-being.
Your brain can be thought of as the pharmacy that delivers these mini-pills, but you are the one who co-determines whether you take the good or bad mini-pills.
Our bodies usually deal with the challenges of the environment dynamically.
When faced with added stress, our body steps up a gear. But there are limits.
If you don’t listen to the signals and start demanding more and more from your mind and body, you will enter an exhaustion. That can be pretty dramatic. Ignoring stress will make it worse.
In all their zeal, people sometimes keep going until their body really says stop, and they don’t even have the strength to get out of bed, for example. Then, of course, it’s too late.
The pressure is on
It is a paradox of our modern society that we have invented more and more tools to make us do the difficult work for us, such as computers, machines, robots, Artificial Intelligence, etc. However, in practice, this has not relieved our workload.
On the contrary, while it was possible as a family to make ends meet on one salary a few generations ago, now two earners are usually needed.
Single parents have it even harder and often have to combine multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, young people are also working hard to combine their studies with a part-time job. If they don’t have to take out a heavy loan first to be able to study at all, as is so common in the U.S.
Imperceptibly, the pressure on us is increasing. You can question the concept of progress when you realize that people had enough to work a few hours a day to make a living in traditional societies.
The rest was filled with talking, socializing, ritual gatherings, or simply doing nothing.
Society is moving faster and faster
Everyone feels that our society is getting faster and faster. But is that right? How can you even scientifically test something so vague?
One of the methods that innovative researchers use is to observe people and check how fast they walk. This can be done, for example, by measuring the time it takes them to cover a certain distance on foot.
It turns out that some countries walk significantly faster than others.
Moreover, when measurements were later repeated, it was found that the speed within a given region had increased over the years. So it is more than a feeling that we are living in an increasingly hurried fashion in our society.
There also appeared to be a correlation with the degree of helpfulness.
In fact, the researchers also had an actor play the role of a person in distress to see how many people would actually stop to offer help.
Hurried subjects were less likely to help.
These results suggest that our society is thus becoming more hurried and that we are also (and perhaps because of this?) less willing to help others. All this while assisting others is actually something that makes us happy too.
Forget the image of the stern boss who uses a whip to force his employees to go to extremes.
The greatest pressure usually comes from within ourselves, in that we set the bar so high for ourselves that we can no longer keep up with the rat race.
It’s not all doom and gloom
All in all, most people in our society today have a reasonably comfortable life.
We have freed ourselves from all kinds of constraints, and, for most of us, there are no longer stifling social or religious norms that limit our actions.
This is in contrast to earlier times, for example, as a woman, unmarried, gay, or unbelieving.
It is good to reflect on this from time to time and draw satisfaction and energy from it.
But today’s society also brings new forms of stress. Ignoring stress is a bad idea.
New forms of stress rearing their heads
Now that we have pushed aside the rigid regulations and are free to determine our own paths, we all have to live up to them.
As a result, many sources can cause us stress: health, work, finances, relationships, safety, etc. However, all of these stressors can be experienced differently.
Stress in our society is highly subjective and highly dependent on our perceptions, particularly the perception of feeling threatened.
But the fact that stress is subjective and a matter of perception does not mean that the effects of stress on our health cannot be serious. Quite the contrary.
Burnout and stress at work
Burnout is a syndrome involving psychological, physical, and social symptoms.
People with burnout experience a strong sense of agitation, a lack of concentration, fatigue, exhaustion, sleep disturbances, pain (in the head, back, muscles…), a reduced sense of self-worth at work, etc.
The numbers of people with burnout are on the rise. In all likelihood, specific estimates underestimate reality.
In certain professions, such as healthcare and education, the risk of burnout is a lot higher. The cause is usually a long-term overload at work, although personal life also plays a role.
Burnout shares many characteristics with depression, but the two are not the same.
Burnout is primarily a lack of energy, while depression is experienced mainly as a mood disorder.
Work plays an important factor in burnout, although personal life is also influential.
Cultural aspects also play a role. Indeed, values and norms around hard work can vary significantly from country to country.
In Japan, for example, there is even a phenomenon called karoshi: death by overwork.
The impact of the September 11 attacks
After the terror attacks, quite a few people felt threatened. And those who felt very threatened then also reported much more mental problems (such as anxiety and depression) and more physical symptoms.
It was striking that these people who felt strongly threatened were more likely to report experiencing fainting, shortness of breath, and chest pain.
These are all symptoms related to stress and more dangerous conditions such as heart problems.
This was brought to light by a U.S. investigation held shortly after 9/11 in a town a few hundred miles from the attacks.
There was a significant increase in the number of heart attacks. So feeling threatened as a result of attacks can undoubtedly harm your health.
In addition to psychological factors, social factors also play an essential role in stress.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of increasing inequality. And those at the bottom of the social ladder often experience more stress.
A large study in Britain (the Whitehall study) has tracked people’s health since 1967.
This included looking at the influence of their social status, specifically their position at work.
The results showed that people in a lower social position have remarkably more health problems and die earlier.
In fact, early deaths were 3 times higher in people in the lowest category compared to those in the highest.
The role of stress in all this became even more apparent after studying monkeys.
There, too, lower-status monkeys (monkeys that must endure the dominance of other monkeys) were found to have remarkably higher levels of stress hormones.
These findings go against the standard view that mainly people in higher positions experience a lot of stress because they have to make more important decisions.
That humans (and monkeys) at the bottom of the social ladder experience even more stress is presumably related to the degree of self-control one can exercise over the situation.
After all, people in higher positions can make their own decisions to a large extent. The feeling of being in control is apparently a protective factor.
In addition, it is also plausible that people in a lower social position experience additional stress, for example, due to financial difficulties or uncertainty about the future.
Ignoring stress: Conclusion
The reality is simple. Ignoring stress is not on.
While some stress is perfectly natural, continuous exposure to stress can lead to chronic stress which is harmful to our health.
Address your stress before it is too late and burnout takes you by surprise.