Imagine you are walking through the woods alone when you hear the sudden crack of a fallen branch. Startled, you jump and your brain starts to release stress signals to your body. The hair on the back of your neck stands up to detect any movements in the air. Your eyes open wider to let in more light. Your heart rate increases and blood is allocated toward your muscles. You might look around, listening for any more noises.
Right now, you are stressed and your body is allocating resources to functions that might be helpful in that scenario: your senses and muscles. You are prepared to defend yourself or run from an attacker, also called the fight or flight response.
Stress signals the brain to call for a reallocation resources for the task at hand. As an organism, survival is your job so a fight or flight response is advantageous for staying alive. The other processes in your brain must take a backseat, slowing down or stopping entirely. Stress is an adaptation that is good for short bursts to ensure your safety.
Let’s get you out of the woods and put you into a classroom. You no longer have to worry for your physical safety, but you have solidified the importance of an upcoming test. Because you have placed so much mental weight onto the outcome of the test, your brain does not have the ability to distinguish the test from a threat like you would experience in the woods. Your brain releases stress and your resources are reallocated to sharpen your senses and quicken your decisions.
However, unlike the woods, you don’t have the ability to run away from this threat. Students usually know when their tests are days or weeks ahead of time. Your short-term adaptation is now activated for much longer and it means your resources remain reallocated to deal with the stress.
The long-term allocation of resources from stress means long-term lack of resources for processes like digestion or hormone production. Maintaining a stressed lifestyle for long enough can literally kill you, for no better reason than your brain can’t keep you alive in this condition anymore.
Stress can be a very helpful signal to help you prepare for the impending future, but it is important to understand the toll that it takes on the rest of your body. We have created a society where our survival isn’t called into question nearly as often as in nature. The stress releasing adaptation doesn’t just go away. We get to choose what we give importance to, but we should be aware of the effect it has on our own brains.