May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and managing stress is a huge part of mental health. Stress is something everyone experiences. Despite being unpleasant, stress in itself is not an illness. But there are strong connections between stress and mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It helps to understand what stress does to our body – specifically the reason we experience it. Ancient men and women experienced clear and present dangers: wild animals, a harsh environment, enemies who wanted their food, and serious struggles for mere survival. The human stress response prepared their bodies for ‘fight or flight’ to face those dangers. This response includes physical changes in the body, such as increased heart rate and breathing and tensed muscles, as well as improved thinking skills and more effective short-term memory. All of these things helped our ancestors quickly escape danger or prepared them to face it. So in short bursts, stress can be a good thing. Even in modern times, it can help us prepare for a sports match, job interview or an exam. Usually, after a stressful event, the body returns to its normal state.
The problem comes when our stress response gets out of control. Prolonged or chronic stress has a very different effect as compared to short bursts that enhance the body’s abilities. Sometimes, especially following trauma, the system controlling our stress response is no longer able to return to its normal state. The way we deal with emotions is negatively impacted as we are constantly in the fight or flight mode, perceiving all things as life-threatening. Such long-term stress can contribute to both physical and mental illness due to its effects on our heart, immune and metabolic functions, as well as hormones acting on the brain.
A key area for future research is to understand why some people are much more affected by stress than others. Many studies show that genetics, early life events, personality, and social factors all play a role. Understanding the biology of stress and its effects means that researchers can work towards new treatments. It will also help predict who is at risk of developing a mental health condition, and uncover the best time to intervene to help prevent ill-health later on.
Learn more about: The Stress Response