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Right now in the United States, 73% (or more) of adults say they experience side effects of stress. One-third of Americans claim to live their lives under extreme stress. A similar survey was conducted in the early 80s, nearly 30 years ago, and the results were much less concerning… Only 10% of people reported living with extreme stress.

The life of the average American has changed exponentially in the last 30 years. Between the recession that so many are still recovering from, to costs of living skyrocketing while the number on paychecks stays the same, to the sheer weight that is the cost of continued education keeping so many people below their economic potential. It’s unsurprising that most folks can identify money problems as a source of their stress, combined with troubles at work. When considering the former alongside the rise of social media where everyone knows everything and everyone is connected 24/7 to both the disheartening daily news stories and the constant comparing their own lives to that of their peers, it’s no wonder we’re all a bunch of stress-balls struggling to get through the day.

When confronted with stress our bodies will react to combat that stress. This reaction stems all the way back to the beginning of humankind, “bad things happening - better compensate!” Of course, we’re not living in the stone age. Even though we’re not running away from a predator (at least in the saber-toothed tiger sense), our brains and bodies still react like we are. Those of us suffering from extreme stress are experiencing our bodies and brains reacting to the imaginary saber-toothed tiger all the time. The effects, both psychologically and physiologically, can be destructive on a long enough timeline.

The brain reacts to extreme stress in the amygdala (a small set of neurons responsible for survival instinct, emotion, and memory) growing extra branches. In short, this means a person will be more receptive and sensitive to stress, while the memory and learning centers actually shrink. How lovely! The reality is that if you’re under severe stress, you become more likely to experience that stress and less likely to remember where you put your keys. A sincerely unfair and vicious circle. Thanks, nature! In case that wasn’t a “perfect storm” enough, stress can curb the production of dopamine, the chemical in your brain that makes you have happy and good feelings. In so many words; you’re going to be stressed, you’re going to become forgetful on account of that stress, and you’ll also be less happy all on account of that stress.

The body reacts to extreme stress by releasing a chemical called cortisol (this regulates metabolism, blood sugar, helps reduce inflammation, and assists in memory retention). It’s a helpful part of our body’s chemistry that is necessary for our day-to-day existence, even in non-stressful times. The downside is that prolonged exposure to cortisol can occasionally reverse its natural intentions… One example is that too much cortisol can cause your joints to chemically break down. That sounds too terrible to be true, but we wouldn’t lie to ya’. Extreme stress can make you more prone to injury due to that chemical breakdown.

The real kicker with all this information is that our human brains and bodies don’t recognize the difference between physical, emotional, or financial stress. To our mechanical selves “stress” is just stress - no matter what.

Don’t panic! Don’t stress yourself out! (See what I did there?) Our next blog will be a “sequel” to this one. We will talk about ways to prevent stress, dealing with it when you’re experiencing it, and how massage therapy can help.