Stress happens to us all. It is a normal human reaction that occurs with change or challenges in life. Sometimes stress helps to keep us motivated, alert and ready to handle tough situations. We may ace a test or performance, or be quick to rise to the occasion in a medical emergency. This is healthy stress. But too much stress, or continuous stress without breaks, can affect our health and our abilities to cope. Chronic stress sends the body’s nervous system into overdrive, producing symptoms such as a racing heart, exhaustion, headaches, dizziness, pain, jaw tension, digestive issues, trouble sleeping, high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, and a general inability to function as usual. Understanding stress—where it comes from, and how it affects us—is a crucial factor in managing our well-being.
As Sapolsky explains, most of us do not lie awake at night worrying about whether we have leprosy or malaria. Instead, the diseases we fear—and the ones that plague us now—are illnesses brought on by the slow accumulation of damage, such as heart disease and cancer.