‘Stress’ is not an uncommon word in the world of 21st century. It’s so common that even a 7 year old child answers ‘I have too much to study, I’m stressed’ when asked ‘ How do you like your school, dearie?’ This can be attributed to the increasing awareness of stress and its role in the pathophysiology of various diseases. As much as we have learnt about the role of stress in disease formation, are we forgetting the basics? That stress is actually a protective response?
The age-old example that our teachers and our textbooks quote for making us understand stress is ‘a prey trying to escape its predator’. When we encounter a life-threatening situation like a lion happening to join our rendesvouz during a trekking trip; our sympathetic system gets alerted, it pumps adrenaline into our blood stream. This causes our heart to pump faster, rises our blood pressure, dilate our pupils, increase blood flow to the organs necessary by shunting the blood flow from others- everything to help us deal with the situation. All good so far, one day we understand that continuous pumping of adrenaline due to this stress response decreases our immunity, makes us susceptible to infections, causes anxiety and depression, peptic ulcer and a whole lot of diseases. Wherever there was an etiology as ‘idiopathic’, we have added ‘stress’ along with it. This is also right. But over time, our increased awareness about stress itself seems to cause more damage. Seems like we have forgotten why there was such a mechanism initially.
The point stressed here is that people who feel they are stressed, are more stressed and this stress causes more stress related diseases and they eventually die of stress. It seems that probably, if they had approached their stress with a different mindset- ‘thinking that this stress is necessary for me to meet the challenges of my life’, ‘the stress is a way that my body works in these situations’ might have reduced their risk of stress related disorders and also reduced their stress. While I was learning about this whole new perspective, I also found out the role of oxytocin in the stress mechanism and hence thought that stress might be a natural aphrodisiac.
An aphrodisiac is anything that stimulates sexual desire. We all know that ‘Oxytocin’ is the cuddle hormone and also released during sexual acts. But little did we know that, oxytocin is pumped into the blood as much as adrenaline during stress. Oxytocin counteracts the damaging effects of adrenaline over heart. Other than that, it makes us social! During stress, oxytocin helps us to find other human beings to help us. It makes us crave for their physical contact, moral support and also socialize with them for us to cope with stress. We all know that when we are stressed, talking to someone or just their support makes us feel better. The biology behind this is ‘Oxytocin’. So, actually when we’re stressed and are pumped with oxytocin, along with the other effects probably we are sexually excited also, making stress as an aphrodisiac. This aphrodisiac does more, it makes us a social animal- the human being.
Here is the link for a talk by Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist who is talking about making stress your friend. You can know more about this topic here:
She concludes her speech impressively, ”Stress, gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart- that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others and the Physical heart that works so hard to give you strength and energy. When you choose to view stress this way, you are not just getting better at stress, you are making a profound statement. You are stating that you can trust yourself to handle your life’s challenges and you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone.”
Let’s get accustomed to the fact that stress is not all that harmful and biology is perfectly designed to act and counter act.