By Kayt Sukel
Stress. Every day—at work, at home, in social settings—most of us experience a certain amount of stress.
Often, it’s about the little things: morning traffic, work deadlines, and home responsibilities. You feel a certain amount of pressure as you work to check off all the items on your day’s to-do list. Can you get your dog to the vet, dinner on the table by 6, run your daughter’s cleats to soccer practice and still prep for tomorrow’s early work meeting? And then can you get up and do it all again the next day?
Sometimes, all those little daily stressors can add up. And they can even feel overwhelming. But, luckily, most of the time those feelings of stress dissipate along with the corresponding situation. By the time Spot has his shots and your child is running on the soccer pitch, you can take a deep breath and relax.
Yet, when you experience chronic stress, or when those feelings of stress continue over an extended period of time, the pressure may not disappear once you meet that important deadline or pay off the unexpected (and expensive) charge on your credit card. The feelings stay with you—and start to add up. And research suggests that such prolonged feelings may help set the stage in the brain for the development of an anxiety disorder.
The impact of long-term stress
Scientifically speaking, stress is defined as “whenever a demand exceeds the regulatory capacity of an organism, particularly in situations that are unpredictable and uncontrollable.” In order to deal with stressful demands, the brain releases a variety of chemicals to help prepare the body for fight, flight, or whatever reaction is necessary to handle the task at hand. One of those chemicals is called cortisol. It’s a hormone that helps to regulate the body’s state, from blood sugar levels to nervous system activation, when the world throws its worst at us.
Cortisol is a hormone with great reach. And studies suggest that its chronic release can change critical pathways in the brain—critical pathways that may ultimately lead to an anxiety disorder.
In 2006, researchers at Harvard University explored this link in an animal model. They gave one group of mice the rodent version of cortisol in drinking water for an acute period of time (24 hours) or a chronic one (18 days). The animals who received the stress hormone chronically showed much more anxious behavior when given various tasks, suggesting their nervous systems were “overwhelmed.”
The results, the authors argue, suggest that chronic stress, with its accompanying high levels of cortisol, increase anxiety. And continuous feelings of anxiety can lead to a disorder. It would seem that while cortisol is adaptive in the short term, helping us to deal with the all those daily stressors in our lives, it can be harmful to our mental health over extended periods.
So what does that mean for those of us who are juggling all those stressors day-to-day at home and in the office? Most importantly, it’s important to know that we need to be mindful and make sure that all those little things aren’t adding up to one big overwhelming thing. Life is full of stress, there’s no way around it. So, in the midst of things, it’s important to take a break to make sure you, and your brain, isn’t overwhelmed in the long term.