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The Science of Stress

Fight-or-Flight

Back when our earliest ancestors were still furnishing caves, sudden danger would activate their nervous systems, signaling the production of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that primed the body for action. At the same time, the production of the energy needed to, say, outrun or outmaneuver a lion resulted in the temporary shut down of nonessential biological functions like digestion and ovulation. That basic chemical reaction is now hardwired into our DNA.

Stress as a Motivator

Fast forward to today and stress still serves a useful function. It enhances your ability to meet or exceed an identified goal such as getting married, having a baby, buying a home, or starting a new job. Because the goals are meaningful, they require a lot of personal energy and investment. In these situations, stress acts as a motivator.

Unfortunately, humans can generate the same response simply by anticipating stress, whether or not it occurs, and whether or not it's merited. And when we subject ourselves to prolonged psychological stress, we can contract ulcers, diabetes, heart disease, brain damage and other emotional and physical disorders.

Video: the Stress Response in Action

When stressed, the body switches on its autonomic nervous system and neurobiological processes in an effort to stabilize the body's inner environment. To watch the Stress Response in action, click here.

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