What is stress? Many people know it as the feeling they get when things seem to be too much to handle, and they feel agitated and anxious. What many fail to comprehend is that stress is both a physiological and biological response to external pressures.
Short durations of stress are a normal reaction and can be beneficial in situations where quick action is needed. Dr Sternberg gives a great explanation of what happens in the body during a stress response “Your pituitary gland, located at the base of your brain, responds to a perceived threat by stepping up its release of a hormone called a drenocorticotropic, or ACTH, which signals other glands to produce additional hormones.
When the pituitary sends out a burst of ACTH, it’s like an alarm system going off deep in your brain. This alarm tells your adrenal glands, situated atop your kidneys, to release a flood of stress hormones into your bloodstream. These hormones – including cortisol and adrenaline – focus your concentration, speed your reaction time, and increase your strength and agility.”(Dr Sternberg)
When the danger has passed the body settles down and returns to normal. The problems arise when the body is put under too much stress, and has no outlet for relieving it. Unrelieved stress can cause many different problems.
One of the first systems hit by stress is the immune system. The immune system is the body’s ability to fight disease. When someone’s body is under constant stress, the immune system can be dampened leading to increased susceptibility to sickness and disease. It can also lead to the immune system going into overdrive and causing autoimmune diseases, in which the immune system attacks the body’s own cells. Stress can also affect pre existing conditions such as Lupus and make them worse.
Another system that stress is very hard on is the heart. How many times have you opened the newspaper or turned on the news and heard that a CEO from a large corporation died of a heart attack. These men/women are deluged with massive stress on a daily basis, and the heart can only take so much. As was already discussed, cortisol is released into the body when someone is under stress. This can raise the heart rate, increase blood pressure, and heighten blood lipid (cholesterol and triglyceride) levels and in turn increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
There are also many diseases that are thought to be caused or made worse by stress. Some of these are autoimmune disorders such as arthritis, Lupus, and thyroiditis. There are also many recognizable diseases like cancers, aids, diabetes, the common cold, flu and many skin disorders. Chronic stress (stress that is constant) can also result in severe hair loss. Not only are there many physical symptoms of stress, there are mental and emotional ones also.
The mental effects of stress can manifest in many ways and can sometimes lead to mental illnesses. One of the most well known mental illnesses is depression. According to Murray, PhD, and Fortinberry, MS “Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.” [upliftprogram.com]
Most people have been touched by depression either by having it themselves or knowing someone who does. There is research being done that ties trauma or severe stress to depression as we speak. Research is showing that the stress hormone cortisol may be a leading factor in depression.
Although stress is not the only cause of depression, it can enhance the symptoms and makes it worse. Depression is not the only mental illness affected by stress.
Those with anxiety disorders like OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and GAD (general anxiety disorder) are unable to deal with stress which can cause them to go into a panic attack. This can lead them to hurt themselves and/or others. Some of the other mental illnesses affected by stress are Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Panic disorder, Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and Schizophrenia. This list is only a drop in the bucket as there are many more mental disorders that are affected by stress.
Stress can also cause many emotional issues, which lead to problems like bulimia and anorexia nervosa. When someone is under stress he/she may seek ways to comfort themselves. One of these is through food. When the person in question is in a stressful situation, they may eat to calm themselves down. This in itself is not dangerous, but most comfort foods tend to be high in sugars, fats, and carbs. Eating foods like this make them feel better emotionally but have negative effects on their health. Most people realize that eating foods like chocolate, ice cream, and donuts in excess can lead to weight gain.
This is where bulimia comes in. A bulimic person will gorge on food when they are stressed out, and then vomit the food back up with the belief that by doing so they won’t gain weight. This impression is incorrect, but it is hard to convince the bulimic person of this. Bulimia can have very serious side effects such as:
Erosion of tooth enamel because of repeated exposure to acidic gastric contents. normal”>Dental cavities, sensitivity to hot or cold food. Swelling and soreness in the salivary glands (from repeated vomiting). normal”>Stomach Ulcers. Ruptures of the stomach and esophagus.Abnormal buildup of fluid in the intestines.Disruption in the normal bowel release function.Electrolyte imbalance.DehydrationIrregular heartbeat and in severe cases normal”>heart attackA greater risk for suicidal behaviorDecrease in libido (mamashealth.org)The consequences of bulimia can be deadly.
Another eating disorder that has serious consequences is anorexia. Those who are anorexic fear weight gain and believe others see them as fat. This stress leads them to eat sparingly if at all, exercise compulsively, and take large amounts of laxatives.”
Some of the effects of this disorder are shrunken bones, mineral loss, low body temperature, irregular heartbeat, permanent failure of normal growth, development of normalWH6PDosteoporosis and www.stressaffect.com).
Exercise: When you get involved in exercise, your body produces hormones called endorphins. Those great little endorphins help you feel positive and happy. endorphins are responsible for the wonderful feeling that you have after running a race or swimming a number of laps-tired and happy-and very relaxed!( www.stressaffect.com). Relaxation and deep breathing techniques: Yoga and other forms of meditation allow for tranquility of the mind and body. Deep breathing exercises help to calm or maintain your sense of control ( www.stressaffect.com).
Being aware of the signs and symptoms of stress can be the key to helping save someone’s life.