Stress is how our mind and body responds to demands placed upon it, for example deadlines at work, exam time at school, being with an annoying person, strenuous exercise, major life changes, or traumatic events. Everyone feels stress at times, but some are better able to cope with it than others. Because stress can seriously affect our health, it is important to either remove stressors or learn how to deal with them.
A stressor may be a one-time or short-term occurrence, or it can continue over a long period of time. Not all stress is bad: it can motivate us to get things done (for example, fear of an audit or penalties makes us fill in our tax return on time), and in dangerous situations it makes our survival instincts take over by triggering our 'fight or flight' response.
In the past few decades a large body of research has confirmed a connection between stress and disease, and between stress management and a reduced risk of morbidity and mortality from certain diseases.
One of the pioneers of modern stress research, the physician/physiologist Hans Selye, was the first to invoke the concept of a physiological response to a wide variety of stressors, both psychological and physical. He coined the term 'general adaptation syndrome' (GAS) to describe the physiological process by which an organism responds to stressors and attempts to reestablish homeostasis (balance, or internal stability). The syndrome consists of three phases:
A hereditary vulnerability and concerns such as economic or political uncertainties, a decreasing quality of life, looming unemployment, and fear of old age or abandonment has led to a general increase in persons who report stress. Other contributing factors include insufficient regular leisure or physical activity, poor diet, an inadequate family structure and lack of a support network. These personal, social, economical and dietary factors interact with biological factors to make stress a leading cause of poor health, from a simple heartburn to a decrease in immune responsiveness, and from this to cancer and other diseases.
An individual's response to stress can manifest itself in many ways. Common signs of stress include difficulty sleeping, alcohol and other substance abuse, a short temper, feeling depressed, and a low energy level.
Both stress and the consequences of stress may need to be treated separately.
Managing and reducing stress involves first recognizing the signs and acknowledging that you are stressed, and then taking time away from your schedule to evaluate your life and priorities. Take time to reflect about your choices, your social and family life, work, study and even financial conditions. A stressed-out person should rethink their life, mostly by identifying the sources of stress and make efforts to resolve them. Wise counseling can be very helpful.
Regular exercise, relaxing activities, setting goals and priorities, and talking to friends and family can all help also.
When organic disease has already set in as a result of stress – be it simple gastritis, cardiac or lung disease, asthma, allergies, or any other suspected stress-related condition – it is important to seek medical help as soon as possible. Specific treatment may be required for these ailments. Again, simple changes such as more exercise, improving nutrient status, making more free time, or changes in life habits may be enough to resolve the problem.
Frequent or long-term stress can lead to health problems. Different people respond in different ways, for example:
Over time, continued stress can contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental disorders such as depression or anxiety. It also increases blood sugar levels, which over time can lead to diabetes, obesity, kidney failure, nerve damage, and vision problems. Stress also causes your body to reduce the levels of anti-aging growth hormones and sex hormones, leading to premature aging and reduced sex drive, sexual dysfunction, and infertility.
When you are under stress, cortisol may literally be eating away at your muscle-building potential. An excess of cortisol can lead to a progressive loss of protein, muscle weakness, atrophy, and loss of bone mass through increased calcium excretion and lower calcium absorption.
Gas can be caused by stress and the nervous habit of frequent swallowing.
Stress can cause hair to lose its shine and become greasy and sticky.
Not only can poor attention to detail be a sign of stress, but so can its exact opposite, being a perfectionist.
These twitches are a spasm of the motor nerves that control the eyelids. They are harmless and quite common, and have no medical significance. Although their cause is not fully certain, it is widely believed that stress is a significant contributing factor. Eyelid twitches usually go away without treatment after a short period of time, but to speed this process you should try to reduce stress.
Stress can cause the neck muscles to tighten and become stiff.
It is believed that when a person is stressed, the brain has difficulty processing all the information that it picks up during the day. It continues to process during the night, which in turn can lead to weird dreams.
Long term stress increases the risk of Ulcerative Colitis flare-ups, according to a study by Susan Levenstein, MD, at the Nuovo Regina Margherita Hospital in Rome. [American Journal of Gastroenterology, May 2000]
Circulation, the journal of the American Heart Association, reported on a study that has correlated the degree of carotid arterial atherosclerosis with exaggerated response to mental stress in men under the age of 55. Patients whose blood pressure responses to stressful situations were the strongest were found to have significantly more advanced atherosclerosis in the carotid arteries than those whose blood pressure responses were less pronounced.
Although researchers are careful not to say that stress causes atherosclerosis, the evidence clearly points to cardiovascular reactivity to stress as an atherosclerotic risk factor of the same magnitude as smoking, hypertension, insulin resistance, and elevated cholesterol levels. The hypothesis is that "Frequent and prolonged periods of elevated blood pressure during mental stress may promote mechanical injury to the endothelial lining or cause release of hormones that can promote the build up of plaque." [Circulation Vol. 96, No. 11: pp.3842-48]
Moscow scientists stated in October, 2000 that they have shown atherosclerotic plaques in blood vessels are formed because of adrenaline, a hormone that releases during stress.
Stress may increase magnesium excretion and the resulting temporary magnesium depletion may make the heart more sensitive to electrical abnormalities and vascular spasm that could lead to cardiac ischemia.
Studies have shown that stressed individuals often exhibit significantly delayed wound healing.
Teeth-grinding is often stress-related.
Research demonstrates that stress can make it more difficult for the body to fight off infection, including periodontal disease. [Journal of Periodontology July 1999]
In general the duodenum isn't as well protected with mucus as is the stomach and is more prone to ulcers. A deficiency of pancreatic juices to neutralize the acid chyme from the stomach, or stress causing sympathetic inhibition of enzyme secretion can lead to duodenal ulcer formation.
In a study of 34 women with chronic constipation, investigators led by Dr. Anton Emmanuel and colleagues at St. Mark's Hospital in Middlesex linked emotional distress with changes in the nerve pathway that helps control gut function. They say the findings suggest a specific path through which psychological factors directly influence the digestive system.
The researchers compared the patients, who had suffered bouts of constipation for an average of 21 years, with a group of women with no history of gastrointestinal illness. All took standard tests that measure psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression, self-image, social functioning and ability to form intimate relationships.
Women with chronic constipation were more likely than healthy women to report anxiety, depression and feeling less "feminine". They also found it harder to form close relationships. [Gut Aug 2001;49: pp.209-13]
Nighttime eaters have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol during almost all hours of the day, suggesting that they suffer from the effects of chronic stress in their daily lives.
People under stress produce high levels of the hormone cortisol, which wreaks havoc on the body.
Some people respond to stress by eating. "Stress Eaters" use food as a drug to deal with external stressors such as work, deadlines or finances. Carbohydrates are often the craved foods because they increase levels of serotonin in the brain, which has a calming effect and helps induce sleep. Stress Eaters often use candy, cookies, pretzels, etc. on the job to relieve stress and are unaware of the reason behind it. A habit of eating in response to stress may lead to obesity.
One study showed that an average adult female is 6 times more sensitive to stress if she was sexually molested as a child.
Studies show that stress and depression affect the body physically and can weaken the immune system. Suppressor-T cells, also known as CD8 cells, are part of the immune system. Studies by Manuck et al in 1991 showed that psychological stressors induced cell division among CD8 cells, thereby increasing the number of CD8 cells and suppressing immune function. However, this response was only seen in those subjects who also showed high heart rate change and catecholamine change during the stressors i.e. those people who are significantly affected by stress.
One of cortisol's undesirable effects is that it contributes to insulin resistance by decreasing the rate of glucose uptake, probably by blocking the insulin receptor. [J Clin endocrinol Metab 54 (1982): pp.131-8]
Regular exercise can help reduce elevated levels of hormones (such as cortisol) that are associated with chronic stress.
Many people who practice yoga say they experience a "freeing of the mind from mental disturbances", a "calming of the spirit", or a "steadying of the mind" with associated reduction of nervousness, irritability and confusion, depression and mental fatigue.
Reflexology assessment takes place as stress cues are evaluated. Stress cues are parts of the foot or hand that shows adaptation to stress. Adaptation is shown by visual signs such as callusing, knobby toes or bunion. Indications of stress are also seen as sensitivity to technique application or touch signs perceived by the reflexologist as technique is applied. The assessment of such stress cues allows the reflexologist to target areas of stress and to design a session of pressure technique application appropriate to provide relaxation specific to the individual.
A study performed on Japanese students during the high stress period of final exams showed that students supplemented with DHA were significantly less aggressive than students who were not supplemented with DHA. Aggression is one of many manifestations of stress along with others such as irritability, defensiveness, being critical, irrationality, overreaction and reacting emotionally.
Another small study found that the effects of DHA may be applied to people under long-lasting psychological stress to prevent stress-related diseases. [Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology 45(5): pp.655-65. Oct 1999]
There is evidence that high doses of B-complex vitamins in humans can reduce the immune-suppressing effects of stress. [Ann NY Acad Sci 1990;585: pp.513-5]
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