People usually think that stress is about how we feel inside, in our heads. Actually stress is about how are bodies are responding to the things around us.
At a primitive level our bodies are geared for survival and are constantly monitoring the environment for threats or desires, commonly called pain pleasure principle, and assesses the risk versus the reward, the outcome of which determines our primary motivations. We want something but our brain looks for potential consequences unconsciously and automatically, often creating an internal conflict (this really raises our energy levels but with no action as we become paralysed by conflicting signals as to whether to run away or deal with the situation.
The brain interprets the information entering through the nervous system and determines how much energy is needed at any moment in time. This is our autonomic nervous system, at the same time the brain calculates whether or not we can handle the situation, if the belief is that it can, then it drives us towards the object of our desires, otherwise it sets up escape drives to get away from the object.
This is called the risk for reward factor. In the world of survival, these drivers are essential for our well being, in modern western society, the dangers have largely been replaced by ‘targets and goals’, the more important we make these goals, the more we react as though they are truly life threatening if they do not happen and the body increases it’s physical energy output to deal with the situation, even if it does not require increased physical energy output.
Our emotional state is merely an interpretation of the physical state, based on our self beliefs and values.
The effect on our physical health comes about because of the internal adjustments the body has to make to produce the increased energy putput. The heart has to beat faster and harder to push the blood which contains the essential fuel, oxygen and materials the body needs to pump up the peripheral muscles to deal with the ‘situation’.
This obviously increases tensions in the muscle fibres, the ligaments of the body and if no physical action can be taken, oipposing muscle groups can be activeated simultaneously which can lead to paralysis, sprains and/or strains.
The blood vessels themselves cone under increased tension as blood pressure rises, rusulribg in possible heart complications, internal haemorrhage and even stroke.
In the meantime, other functions are affected, the stomache gets a signal to discharge enything in it in order to streamline us for survival, removing excessive weight allowing us to become faster and more agile, this is where we get that churning ot butterflies in the stomach feeling, Some people become so finely tuned in their respomnses this can become almost permanent, giving rise to cramps and pains, conditions such as IBS can often be the result of an over-anxious response, worrying etc.
The immune system may temporarily be put on hold, opening us to infections from viruses and bacteria.
However, as part of the amazing balancing act the body undergoes, at night when we sleep, it undergoes repair work, immune function increases and prepares us for the next day, the muscles get much needed respite as do the blood vessels.
But when we can’t sleep, this essential process doesn’t happen, or at least, not as well as it should be, because the body is still in active mode, even if we are sitting or lying down, muscles are still being activated.
It’s ironic, but people working in an office or sedentary environment often suffer more with bad backs than people who do hard physical manual labour.
There is a balance that needs to be maintained between your diet (which needs will vary according to your life work balance), your ability to relax (which will be affected by your philisophical aproach to life), and exercise (which will both keep the body in a healthier state as well as releasing energy from tense muscles).