Chronic, or ongoing stress isn’t just a state of mind – there are actual physiological effects to being stressed. Sometimes these are related to our ‘Fight or Flight’ response, which is a deeply ingrained response to stress.
Any perceived or real threat to our wellbeing causes a physical arousal response. This can be as straightforward as a near miss on the road or as complicated as an imagined setback at work.
The body responds to threat in seconds through the sympathetic nervous system and prepares to attack or escape the threat— this is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. This involves every part of the body, from the hair standing up on the scalp, to the increased heartbeat, to sweat popping out on the skin.
It is biologically hardwired to help us to survive, which it does. When the threat is over, the system returns to normal. But this return to normal takes much longer, and only happens if we do not encounter another threat.
You can see where this may lead. Chronic stress over time doesn’t allow our bodies to return to the de-stressed state. We don’t have enough recovery time between threats and that puts our system at risk.
The links between chronic stress and blood pressure are not clear and are still being studied. Possibly some of the habits that are linked to stress such as poor sleeping patterns, overeating, smoking and drinking alcohol contribute to high blood pressure. Also, it is possible that stress related spikes in blood pressure that are short lived, if they continue over the long term may put you at risk of developing high blood pressure. Even temporary spikes in blood pressure — if they occur often enough — can damage your blood vessels, heart and kidneys in a way similar to long-term high blood pressure.
In other words, people who are highly stressed find it hard to return to that ‘pre-stress’ state. And living your life at that heightened level of stress, triggered by your fight or flight response, is not only bad for your emotional wellbeing, it can be physically exhausting too. It is impossible to avoid stress completely, so it is important to build in stress relieving activities – to de-stress your body and mind and allow yourself time to wind down. You can try using thinking or physical activity exercises (two of our five factors) to work to manage your stress and relax your body and mind.