Stress

For a quick overview of stress, watch this video.

Acute stress is a natural warning signal to the body that helps us respond to short term threats or changes in our environment. It is a key survival mechanism. As a physiological response, it mobilises our energy in anticipation of action, such as flight or fight. It can be broken down into four responses: fright (arousal), flight (avoiding the perceived harm is often the preferred response to fight); fight (facing up to the harm) and freeze (playing dead and hoping the bear/threat moves on). These stages can apply to every day stressors too.

When we are healthy, we have the energy to deal with short term or acute stress, for instance, running to catch a bus or recovering from a fall. Our heart rate goes up, our blood sugar levels alter, our perspiration increases to help cool the body as we run. These reactions are all triggered by the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. When we are first aroused, say, by seeing our bus before we get to the bus stop, we produce adrenaline and noradrenaline (the American terms are epinephrine and norepinephrine) for a few minutes to help mobilise us to get there in time. When the stress is over (whew! we made it) our body recovers quickly, balance is restored.

If the stressor continues, for example, we miss the bus and are in danger of being late for an important meeting or date, then the neurochemical cortisol fires up to keep the energy levels high for long enough to deal with the continued stress. Cortisol mobilises energy from reserves stored in the liver and muscles to help us ‘fight’ or ‘flee’. The trouble is it can keep pumping into the system even after the stressor has passed.

Cortisol continues to flood our system if we have many stress triggers in our life. Today the stressors tend to be psychological, worries about social position, family feuds, economic success or loneliness, rather than physical threats such as warring tribesmen or sabre-toothed tigers. No matter, our body responds to the psychological threats in the same way as our ancient ancestors’ bodies did to those physical threats. High levels of cortisol in the system are a biological marker for not only stress, but also depression.

Stress Triggers and Stress Responses

It is useful to see stress in terms of stress triggers and stress responses. Triggers can be physical threats to our survival but also psychological threats, like social rejection or fear of redundancy. Stress is produced too by pleasant changes such as promotion, going on holiday, or meeting a new sweetheart. Negative stressors are more obvious things like pain, accidents, exhaustion. Both types require more energy to adapt to the change.

Chronic Stress

Stress can accumulate below our conscious awareness. Suddenly we can feel overwhelmed by life and feel unable to cope. We have no resilience to conflict or problems. A stressed brain relies on habit. Creative thinking is too hard. Too much stress, for too long, becomes chronic stress. This is when our body is not able to restore itself again as it does with acute stress. It’s what wears us down, compromises our immune system, makes us more vulnerable to accidents and leaves us feeling depressed, anxious and out of control. That is when we are more vulnerable to taking stimulants, drugs, alcohol or using internet distractions to make us feel better and avoid the pain.

How we manage stress over the years is key to our wellbeing and our relationships. As we’ve seen from the Grant study, addiction, depression and neurosis are the biggest barriers to a healthy, happy relationship.

Stress shifts the body’s focus of attention and energy supply from the core areas like the brain, digestive system and reproductive organs in order to feed energy to those areas that need energy immediately to get us out of the perceived danger. That is why over time, unless we manage our stress properly, and stress is inevitable, we develop digestive conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, or a poor memory and an inability to concentrate for long. We weaken our immune system, we catch infections more easily and take longer to heal. Stress ages the skin and body.

Under chronic stress, adrenaline creates scars in our blood vessels that can cause a heart attack or stroke, and cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling our ability to learn and remember.

Individually, the worst kind of stress is the feeling that we have no control over the problem, that we are helpless.

Emotional stress has huge impacts across society, on children’s ability to learn at school and on an adult’s productivity at work. Internet addictions are a real problem today unless we take determined action to prevent them.

In short, stress wears us out.

<< Physical Effects                                                                                     A Supernormal Stimulus >>