Why, Why, Why?

Why stress? What's the point? Stress is a relatively complex interaction of external and internal processes caused by something relatively simple: the survival instinct. And that's important, even today!

Life is full of stimuli. We enjoy some of it. We don't enjoy some of it. But our bodies are programmed, through millions of years of learning how to survive, to react in certain ways to stimulus that is extreme. We've evolved so that if you should suddenly find yourself in a dangerous situation — you step in front of a speeding car, you lose your balance and teeter on the edge of a cliff, you call your boss a troglodyte when he is standing right behind you — your body will react in a way that will best ensure your survival. You might move extra fast. You might pitch yourself back to safety. You might think fast and talk your way out of trouble.

Whether you are being chased around the savanna by a hungry lion or around the parking lot by an aggressive car salesman, your body recognizes an alarm and pours stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream. Adrenaline produces what scientists call the “fight or flight” response. It gives you an extra boost of strength and energy so that you can turn around and fight that lion, if you think you will win (you're probably better off pitted against the car salesman), or so that you can run like the dickens (also effective against car salesmen).

Adrenaline increases your heart rate and your breathing rate and sends blood straight to your vital organs so that they can work better — faster muscle response, quicker thinking, and so on. It also helps your blood to clot faster and draws blood away from your skin (if you should suffer a swipe of the lion's claw, you won't bleed as much) and also from your digestive tract (so you won't throw up — no, it doesn't always work). And cortisol flows through your body to keep the stress response responding as long as the stress continues.

Even back in the caveman days, people weren't being chased by hungry lions all day long, every day, for weeks on end (or, if they were, they really should have considered moving to a different cave). Such extreme physical reactions aren't meant to occur all the time. They are undeniably helpful during emergencies and other extreme situations, including fun situations like performing in a play or giving the toast at your best friend's wedding. The stress reaction can help you think more quickly, react more accurately, and respond with clever, witty repartee or just the right joke to keep the audience entranced by your sparkling performance.

If your life seems stressful even though nothing is different than usual, chances are the culprit is sleep deprivation. Even if your serotonin cycle isn't so disrupted that you can't sleep, plenty of people simply don't sleep because they stay up late watching television. Most people really do need seven to eight hours of sleep to feel refreshed and to handle normal stress with aplomb.

But if you were to experience the constant release of adrenaline and cortisol every day, eventually the feeling would get tiresome, quite literally. You'd start to experience exhaustion, physical pain, a decrease in your ability to concentrate and remember, frustration, irritability, insomnia, possibly even violent episodes. Your body would become out of balance because we aren't designed to be under stress all the time.

But these days, life moves so quickly, technology allows us to do ten times more in a fraction of the time, and everybody wants everything yesterday, so stress happens. But too much stress will negate the effects of all that great technology — you won't get any work done if you have no energy, no motivation, and keep getting sick.

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