What do we actually known about stress?
Psychologists agree that stress is the psychological perception of pressure and how the body responds to it. This differs in each individual, but research has shown that it affects multiple systems such as the metabolism, muscles, memory and many more.
Some stress is not necessarily a bad thing and is required by all living systems in order to be able to effectively respond when encountering challenges and uncertainties met throughout each living moment. Humans are constantly exposed to stressful situations, which occur at all hours of the day and even as we sleep – a bad dream perhaps.
When living creatures feel threatened, an automatic response system is activated through hormonal signals in what is called a fight-or-flight response. Triggers to stressful events can be as simple as an external event or a more complex internal event.
External and physical events are easier to deal with and the aforementioned fight -or -flight response activates instantly. Let us assume someone with arachnophobia suddenly encounters a huge spider-they are most likely to turn around and run in fear, or perhaps kill it with something at hand. Running a marathon, playing a football game, exposure to radiation and certain medications are all stress inducing external or physical situations.
Internal events may include issues of fear and insecurity -existing or anticipated –such as dealing with a stressful job, family situation and other social related issues. These are usually not easy to get rid of.
What happens during a stressful event?
Whether internal or external, the stress event will trigger a surge of stress hormones throughout the body. This is due to the activation of the brain network which includes the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal cortex. The two best known of these hormones are adrenaline and cortisol – cortisone like compounds called glucocorticoids – which have a profound effect on the body and brain.
The immediate reaction of the body is to increase the heartbeat, leading to a faster circulation of the blood as it prepares the body for swift movement. This proves very effective for the person running away from the spider but unfortunately, does not assist those dealing with chronic stressful situations faced on a regular basis.
The effects of glucocorticoids on the body and brain have been the subject of much research over the years. The conclusion seems to be that a little doesn’t have much of an effect, and a lot is damaging.
Our brain releases a moderate amount of cortisol each morning to activate blood glucose into breaking down fat and protein. This helps the body prepare for the day ahead. The brain needs huge amounts of energy- which only glucose can provide-in order to energize the neurons needed for enhanced memory ability. Cortisol also reduces the release of cellular chemicals that cause inflammation.
However, Cortisol inhibits the actions of cellular chemicals needed for growth, reproduction, bone formation and it decreases immunity, especially in periods of prolonged stress.
The body needs some time to calm down after the triggering of a stress response. Therefore, prolonged or repeated stressful episodes do not allow enough time for this settling and can then lead to harmful consequences – both physical and psychological.
The breakdown of proteins under stressful situations leads to a loss of body muscles mass, while inflammation releases toxic chemicals affecting the cells, making the immune system weaker and increases the risk for infections.
Obese people will have a cumulative increase in fat cells cause by the raised glucorticoid levels, which then lead to increased fat deposits. This increases the likelihood of them getting type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
High levels of glucocorticoid also affect brain function by impairing memory and causing accelerated brain degeneration and cognitive decline. Higher levels of glucocorticoid, when unchecked, often cause depression.
Recognizing stress triggers
Most stress causing situations are caused by small, unimportant things which trigger angry emotions. Overreacting in certain situations might also make them much worse. Dealing with situations like these need not raise stress levels. Seeking constructive ways to deal with insignificant incidents encourages better psychological and physical health.
Overreacting temporarily releases tension, leaving the individual feeling relieved for a while, but because it isn’t treating the root causes for the anxiety it becomes an often repeated cycle.
People who overreact also tend to over think, causing them to continuously relive past situations. This obstructs their happiness and leaves them unable to focus on new thoughts.
Triggers are easy to identify as it is usually the same type of thing that will trigger an overreaction. Criticism at home or work, traffic jams and other peoples’ sloppy habits are but a few.
For those unsure about how to identify what causes a trigger: Looking back at the last few incidents and keeping notes on the causes should help identify it. Other factors need to be taken into consideration too; tiredness, hunger and anxiety about an issue can also trigger stress.
What is the perfect amount of stress?
Since we know that stress is a killer, and yet also a necessity, there must surely be a way to gauge when we have achieved the perfect balance.
With the first hint of a stress stimulus, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in. The adrenal glands release adrenaline, the first stress hormone. The lungs are dilated by the adrenaline to make space for the extra oxygen needed while it also charges the heart so that the now oxygenated blood can flow faster.
The next hormone, norepinephrine, starts taking effect and constricts the veins leading to the heart, giving the blood flow more force. The arteries to the skin are constricted so that in the event of an injury there will be slower bleeding.
Finally, the important stress hormone cortisol starts springing from the adrenal gland. Its job is to mobilize the stored energy in the cells and to ration their distribution throughout the stress episode.
Cortisol is found in our bodies at all times and follows the normal circadian rhythms: It is highest early on in the day and lowest at night – following the natural wake and sleep patterns.
Good stress is when there is a sense of control during an event that will trigger a stressful response. Duration and perception of the event is what establish it as a challenge or a threat.
During a challenge stress situation a person will have all of the three hormonal release situations mentioned above but in just the right amount to make them ready to face the situation at hand. There will be increased heart rate, hands get warm, and the eyes shine. This is similar to the response the body will have after an aerobic workout or resistance exercise. Intercourse between couples is also a form of challenge stress. During a power point presentation a student or employee could be nervous, but also have the confidence in their ability to complete it successfully.
Challenge stress brings good changes to the body and the most impressive is the growth of new brain cells.
When does challenge stress become “threat” stress?
The moment a worry starts affecting a person’s ability to carry out everyday tasks or causes changes in sleep patterns is when it has tipped over from challenge stress to “threat” stress.
Norepinephrine levels rise to a higher level and negate the effects of epinephrine, causing blood vessels to constrict instead of to dilate. Cortisol gushes, causing the hands to go icy and the mind to go blank. If the threat continues for long then the stress becomes chronic and what scientists sometimes call toxic stress. Severe cases of toxic stress can lead to feelings of helplessness in sufferers.
The tipping point in a stress situation comes as the levels of cortisol increase. As the levels of the two initial hormones increase – epinephrine and norepinephrine- there is an increased reaction in both physical and mental activities. Researchers have observed how the cortisol levels affect the memory, especially the emotional side. There is a hill shaped curve in the graph of their observations where the initial increase in cortisol boosts the memory, but after a certain point if the cortisol level doesn’t decrease there is a decline in memory – this is the body’s best signal to anyone facing a stressful situation to bow out of it as soon as possible.
This curve was named the Yerkes-Dodson law -after the two eponymous scientists –and they established it a century ago through their observations of how electric shocks affected the ability of mice to avoid a black box.