A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a looming work deadline, or psychological, such as persistent worry about losing a job — can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.
This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.
Over the years, researchers have learned not only how and why these reactions occur but have also gained insight into the long-term effects chronic stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body.
Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of demand or threat. When you sense danger—whether it’s real or imagined—the body’s defences kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction or the “stress response.”
The stress response is the body’s way of protecting you. When working properly, it helps you stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid a car accident.
What Is Stress?
Stress is “an emotion accompanied by or associated with adverse physical and mental symptoms,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Researchers estimate the average person is exposed to about eight stressful situations per day. Beyond those events, stress can still play a role in our lives.
For example, while a low-stress day may include sleeping in, reading the paper, and eating a well-balanced meal, researchers at Stony Brook University suggest it’s a stressed-out day that sees you reading the paper, eating well, and sleeping in. And in the world of sports, the physical exertion associated with training and competition can cause a cascade of stress hormones, as well.
Stress is a natural response to a perceived threat — or even the anticipation of a threat — that activates the sympathetic nervous system.
The system has three parts:
- The parasympathetic nervous system, which controls things like digestion, blood pressure and the digestive system;
- The sympathetic nervous system, which responds to situations of acute danger and triggers the heart rate and breathing;
- The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which regulates cortisol, which helps protect you from stress-induced diseases and disorders.
When stress becomes chronic or disabling, the HPA axis can become overactive. When it does, cortisol keeps the body “in fight-or-flight” mode, ready to run, fight or flee at the first sign of danger.
When Can You Tell That You Are Stressed?
During a conflict situation, many people experience an emotional range of feelings, from anxiety to anger to sadness to disgust. According to Pindyck, these feelings are often interrelated. For example, people who are upset and angry about being criticized by a boss feel embarrassed when they show this anger.
They also feel inadequate. Then they feel responsible for those feelings, and for the action, they are about to take. So, if the boss says something that makes the person angry, the person tries to comfort him or herself by saying, “It's not your fault.” Stress hormone levels can be measured during a stressful situation by a doctor or nurse by measuring the levels in tears.
Simply noticing that you are stressed is not enough to tell the difference between the strain of a demanding project at work and the daily stress of having a busy family life. Stress is an emotion, just like sadness or anger. People can still experience worry or even depression when they feel no surge of adrenaline when they think of the looming deadline or concern about money, according to Psychology Today.
But if you feel that the situation is urgent or you are under an unusual amount of stress, Dr. Acheson says it’s a good idea to pay attention to your body. “We have another limb we rely on in the body and it can give us the clues of what’s going on,” she says.
High stress creates a biological response that a doctor might consider triggering a heart attack. Dr. Lee Nichols of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and his colleagues looked at how many cardiologists were aware of these symptoms. The answer: Only 40 percent said they often saw them in their patients, he said.
His team interviewed 28 heart doctors and looked at self-reported data from the 2003-2005 National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, a national database of patient visits. Dr. Nichols’s team asked how often doctors had seen patients with the following symptoms: Concerned about their job or the future, Confused about the latest medical information, Nervous about going on a trip, Nervous about having surgery or waiting for an operation, and Nervous about medical tests.
What Are The Effects Of Stress On Your Body?
When you're under stress, the adrenal glands send a surge of stress hormones to the heart and lungs. The adrenal glands can secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline. When the adrenal glands receive their message, the heart rate and blood pressure increase, causing the body to take notice.
Maintaining normal heart rate and blood pressure requires the continuous use of hormones like epinephrine and norepinephrine, which help calm the nerves. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline travel to your digestive system to increase digestion and nutrient absorption and also to your muscles to prevent cramping. Acute stress can reduce blood flow to the brain, which can lead to headaches, confusion and disorientation.
When you're under threat, your body has two general responses to try to survive. Your muscles tense, causing your blood pressure to rise. Once the threat passes, your body gradually relaxes, leaving you breathing more easily. But how long this immediate post-stress response lasts varies. Long-term, it can lead to heart disease.
What can you do about stress? If you're stressed, you may want to try these suggestions to help ease the symptoms: Eat healthy foods, especially those rich in tryptophan, a nutrient that's converted to serotonin in your brain. Fruits and vegetables can also help with anxiety. Stay calm. Try meditation or yoga or other practices that help reduce stress and increase your ability to feel calm and grounded.
Stress causes your blood vessels to dilate, allowing more blood to flow into your skin, muscles and organs. In fact, blood pressure tends to rise when you are under stress. Your body also responds by releasing hormones into your bloodstream, among them adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol.
These hormones can affect your brain and nervous system, and accelerate muscle movement and reflexes. The process of adrenaline's passage through the body leads to an increase in blood pressure and heart rate, which can cause fluid to build up in your lungs and feet, putting pressure on your lungs. Your blood pressure is also likely to rise when cortisol and adrenaline rush through your body and muscles.
What Are The Health Effects Of Stress?
Stress changes how hormones, chemicals, and ions in the blood react, said Peter Dreier, a professor of politics and sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles. These changes can reduce the body's ability to respond to pain, heal wounds, fight disease, or cope with anesthesia or anesthesia drugs.
In the short term, prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead to a host of physical problems, from hypertension and heart attacks to gastrointestinal disorders. Over the long term, a stressful life can damage the brain and even lower IQ. One aspect of human stress is that it can override our usual self-control. That's what leads us to indulge in too many sugary treats when our willpower is low.
Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can impair sleep, alter appetite and gut health, and influence immune function and inflammation. Why are we so stressed? Research shows that the more we have to do, the more stress we feel, especially at times of change or transition.
When we’re under stress, our brains shift toward a fight-or-flight response, said Gary Mack, professor of psychology at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Meyers. That allows us to muster up the physical and mental energy we need to deal with an immediate problem but can leave us vulnerable to other, potentially bigger, risks. “When you get into a stressful situation, that’s what you do. You push through,” Mack said.
The physiological responses to stress can have significant health consequences. “Stress can affect every system of your body,” Lopes says. As a consequence, physiological changes are linked to mental health issues and disorders. Those who live in high-stress situations, such as soldiers, are at increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and heart disease, among other conditions.
A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that heart attacks were twice as common among people living in high-stress neighbourhoods compared with those who didn't. A 2012 study found that people living in high-stress neighbourhoods had fewer years of education than those who weren't.
How Does Stress Affect Productivity?
People who have chronic stress or show signs of it, such as uncontrollable stomach upset, fatigue and mood swings, can reduce their productivity by 14 percent, according to a 2006 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Other studies have shown that people who are most stressed at work tend to be the least productive.
While these studies do not focus on creative workers, creative types — whether they are in the arts or working in fields such as architecture, technology, engineering and medicine — often face the additional challenges of maintaining a sense of personal well-being, said Christine Stegemöller, a scientist at the Waltham Centre for Research on Work and Health at University College London.
Stress is the human body’s response to threat and danger, and such stimuli increase blood flow to muscles, blood vessels and heart and brain tissues, says Nick Knight, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Washington. When the body experiences threats, it releases a surge of hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones work through the body to control or mitigate responses to threat.
Stress and productivity often go hand in hand. There is considerable evidence that the presence of stress makes it harder to be productive. Just ask a lot of people in the grips of the 2016 presidential election. Moreover, research on the effects of workplace stress shows that it can sap your ability to think and make decisions.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia have found that chronic workplace stress is a particularly pernicious distraction that can affect performance. Even brief encounters with stress can impair concentration and memory, rendering people more likely to make costly errors. Taking breaks and switching tasks can help reduce stress and help you feel more in control.
How Can You Reduce Your Stress Levels On A Daily Basis?
Awareness is the first step. Find out what works for you to manage stress on a day-to-day basis. It could be meditating, doing exercise or talking to friends and family about your worries. All these things are good for your health, yet most of us don’t think about them in a way that helps us manage stress.
Once you know what helps you deal with stress, try and incorporate it into your day so it becomes part of your life. If you find you are at a low ebb in your stress levels, it can be helpful to reach out to a friend or family member for some advice or just to vent. Just calling someone up and saying “I need your help” can improve your stress levels.
In a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, researchers from the University of Southern California found that regular engagement in daily activities can decrease the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. “These included simple, everyday activities such as listening to soothing music or working in the garden,” says study author Dr. Matthew Burch, a practicing clinical psychologist and faculty member at the Keck School of Medicine at USC.
If you’re convinced you must be stressed out, you may be right, says Dr. Martin Wohlman, a sleep specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. “We live in an information-overloaded, task-driven society,” he says, noting that people are constantly distracted by devices and even though they’re surrounded by so many people, they are alone.
We are, for the most part, alone. There is much anxiety in today’s world, he says, citing the record-high number of Americans who experienced high levels of anxiety in 2016. One factor, he says, is that the economy has been picking up — people are getting jobs, but they’re not getting raises and have seen jobs disappearing.
How Does Stress Affect Our Mental Health?
Our stress hormones cause our blood vessels to constrict, which can cause blood pressure to rise and reduce blood flow to the brain. This can lead to the feeling of being tired and dizzy. Our parasympathetic nervous system — which governs basic survival behaviours such as digestion, walking, and breathing — becomes suppressed, making it difficult to relax. Our sympathetic nervous system, which activates our fight-or-flight response, rises.
Our heart beats faster and the breathing gets shallower, and we become short of breath and stressed out. Eventually, when our bodies become so exhausted that we cannot handle a stressful situation any longer, we become anxious, upset, or depressed. This vicious cycle can have long-term effects on health.
In severe cases, prolonged stress can make a person sick or even kill. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression, anxiety, drug addiction, eating disorders and suicide are all linked to chronic stress. This overwhelming experience is called “toxic stress.”
While it's recognized as a natural part of childhood development, research shows that over time it can make children more vulnerable to physical and psychological ailments later in life. It may also be related to obesity and poor diet. It's not all bad news, though. Researchers have found that after a stressful event, the body and brain can react with countermeasures that help us bounce back — but only if we stay physically and mentally active for a while.
Stress affects your feelings of confidence, competence and control. All these are markers of how well you think you can handle a particular situation. Stressed-out individuals might feel stressed about work, but also stressed about financial worries, relationship conflicts and other stressors.
In some studies, people with high levels of stress were more likely to experience poor mental health, such as high levels of anxiety and depression. Our behaviours — everything from how we drive and which foods we eat, to how much we exercise and how we use our time — are also impacted by stress. Researchers know that increased levels of stress are tied to poor eating habits, smoking, drinking and other health problems.
The body has two major stress systems, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is involved in fast reactions to acute stress. The PNS is involved in the calming down, reparative effects of stress. The SNS can initiate a fight-or-flight response by elevating heart rate and blood pressure, while the PNS prompts people to relax.
“The sympathetic nervous system is the accelerator,” says Howard Ochman, Ph.D., chief science officer at integrative health care organization the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “It’s that part of the nervous system that gives you the adrenaline, the adrenalin, the sugar in your blood, and you get that high-stress response.
A single situation, such as a cut in pay or a pending performance review, can cause symptoms such as increased heart rate, shallow breathing and sweaty palms. The stress response is necessary to protect the body against injury and illness. The brain quickly adjusts to the sudden stress.
In response to a constant state of psychological stress, the body's stress response can become habitual and become less sensitive to the situation. Some examples of chronic stress: workplace abuse, a chronic illness or disability, being chronically ill and caring for an ill family member, and having constant, daily sources of stress at home.
There are several different types of stressors. Those that most often put a person at risk for developing heart disease include People who suffer from clinical depression. People with clinical depression have higher blood pressure and worse control of their blood sugar and cholesterol. Physical and sexual trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can occur as a result of some traumatic experiences, is a common stressor and is often associated with heart disease. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can occur as a result of some traumatic experiences, is a common stressor and is often associated with heart disease.
A person may keep beating himself up over a mistake, even if there was nothing he or she could have done to avoid it. A natural result of prolonged stress is the development of a condition known as a generalized anxiety disorder. A qualified mental health professional will listen and answer questions, guide you through exercises, and treat any related mental illnesses that are active.
Though stress is a normal response to unpredictable environmental and psychological factors, too much stress can cause injury and disease, create problems at work and school, and compromise the quality of life. For the parents, the family and the teacher, reducing their stress level is just as important as giving children healthy habits for a better life. We know from previous research that chronic stress is associated with shorter telomeres.
These findings from a new study appear to be the first to find a link between stress and the subsequent length of telomeres. As we continue to explore the impact of stressful situations on telomeres, our understanding of how to manage stress, particularly in the workplace, will evolve.
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