Stress. We all know it, we’ve all felt it. The raised heart rate, the sweating of the palms, the jittery feet.

You might be scared for an exam: you fear the questions you are about to see, that your knowledge might not kick in when you need it to and you fear that your result will not reflect the heart you poured into your preparation. Or you might be waiting behind the blocks of your least favourite race: you fear that your equipment will malfunction, you might false start, you might break a limb (you know, because someone might defy the laws of physics and kick you in midair?) as you dive into the water. We start to see the worst (and oftentimes irrational) outcomes our situation.

Why do we stress? Well in short, because we care very deeply about an event/person/object and we fear the future of it. Our instinct of fearing what we do not know and cannot control, the future, causes us to exhibit physiological responses. The stress response is known as “fight or flight”, where our bodies prepare for the threat or danger they believe they are facing.

Stress response is elicited by the nervous system, where the brain triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones elevate blood pressure, constrict blood vessels and increase heart rate (also activating the respiratory system). Oxygen-rich blood hence travels faster through the body, preparing muscles to react to the perceived threat. Our muscles also tense up, which is the body’s natural way of bracing itself for pain/injury. This to me is reminiscent of our species’ beginnings as apparent equals on Earth, where our distant ancestors had to either fight or flee for their lives. Evolution preserved the fight or flight instinct as a mechanism of survival, reinforcing “survival of the fittest”. So all stress elicits the same bodily response, no matter the origin.

I believe that stress can be viewed as a direct outcome of our fear of the future/fear of the unknown. When outcomes are not in our hands, our anxiety and stress mounts as an auto response. Majority of my stresses come from small everyday events, which all boil down to my wish to control everything I do. But simple tricks (and the biology behind them!) like mindfulness, deep breathing and prioritizing sleep are effective at reducing stress and can help channel more positive energy towards action.

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