Ingrid Wickelgren: A test, a deadline at work, a difficult conversation, a traffic jam, your heart pounds, you breathe faster, your muscles tense, you sweat, it's all well very stressful, plus overtime. All of these unpleasantness can raise your blood pressure. clog your arteries and make you prone to anxiety, depression and even addiction. Is the answer to avoid stress? As if that were possible.
Actually, one answer is to take on more of it. Our body's response to stress is to fight or flee. It evolve to help us react quickly to get ourselves out of a jam. When danger strikes the amygdala, the brain's fear sensor, alerts the hypothalamus that's something is wrong. This almond-sized brain center makes a long distance call to the adrenal glands. This sit just above your kidneys and pump epinephrine into the blood. You become focused, your reflexes improve, your senses sharpen.
To keep your tension high, the hypothalamus acts again. This time, it tells the pituitary glands to nudge the adrenal glands to spew out cortisol. This stress hormone pushes glucose out of your tissues and into the blood, giving your body extra energy.
Modern stressors are usually not life-threatening. So this whole cascade of events can be overkill, causing people to fret when there really isn't much to worry about. But ironically, you need stress to fight stress. Taking on reasonable challenges like speaking in front of a small group or standing up to a friend who's bothering you, conditions the brain to handle stressful situations. The brain's chief executive, the prefrontal cortex, gains power. So the next time a deadline looms, or a traffic backs up, it shuts up the amygdala, stifling the alarm. You can now tolerate that stress. You are resilient.
For Scientific American's Instant Egghead, I'm Ingrid Wickelgren.There may be small errors in this transcript.