Your boss ominously requests an urgent meeting, your taxi is inching towards the airport with minutes to spare before your flight, or your football team have been granted a potentially game-winning penalty in the 91st minute. Your heart pounds, your stomach lurches, your hands turn clammy: the effects of stress are visceral and instantaneous.
When faced with a perceived threat, the body’s fight or flight system triggers in a well-choreographed sequence that has evolved over millions of years. “We’re here because our ancestors were so brave and could survive through times of terrible stress and threat,” says Carmen Sandi, who leads a behavioural genetics laboratory in Switzerland. “The problem nowadays is that we’re activating this ancient survival response in a job interview.”
In the modern world, where life-threatening situations are encountered rarely, stress itself has become the spectre. Last year, in the largest survey on the impact of stress, three in four Britons reported being so stressed that they had felt overwhelmed or unable to cope at least once over the last year. Studies across populations have linked extreme and chronic stress with heart disease, diabetes and mental health problems including depression. What is it doing to our bodies?