…not all stress is the same. ‘Good stress’ involves taking a chance on something one wants, like interviewing for a job or school, or giving a talk before strangers, and feeling rewarded when successful. ‘Tolerable stress’ means that something bad happens, like losing a job or a loved one, but we have the personal resources and support systems to weather the storm. ‘Toxic stress’ is ….something so bad that we don’t have the personal resources or support systems to navigate it, something that could plunge us into mental or physical ill health and throw us for a loop.
Biochemical mediators such as cortisol and adrenalin help us to adapt – as long as they are turned on in a balanced way when we need them, and then turned off again when the challenge is over. When that does not happen, these ‘hormones of stress’ can cause unhealthy changes in brain and body – for example, high or low blood pressure, or an accumulation of belly fat. When wear and tear on the body results from imbalance of the ‘mediators’, we use the term ‘allostatic load’. When wear and tear is strongest, we call it allostatic overload, and this is what occurs in toxic stress. An example is when bad health behaviours such as smoking, drinking and loneliness result in hypertension and belly fat, causing coronary artery blockade. In short, the mediators that help us to adapt and maintain our homeostasis to survive can also contribute to the well-known diseases of modern life.
…what really affects our health and wellbeing are the more subtle, gradual and long-term influences from our social and physical environment – our family and neighbourhood, the demands of a job, shift work and jet lag, sleeping badly, living in an ugly, noisy and polluted environment, being lonely, not getting enough physical activity, eating too much of the wrong foods, smoking, drinking too much alcohol. All these contribute to allostatic load and overload through the same biological mediators that help us to adapt and stay alive.McEwen continues with an informative description of the mechanisms through which our brains both regulate and are compromised by stress.