Stress Management 101: The Body Response to Stress
On their book “ The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook” written by Martha Davis, PhD, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, M.S.W, and Matthew McKay, Ph.D., stress is described as an everyday fact of life: “You can’t avoid it. Stress is any change that you must adapt to, ranging from the negative extreme of actual physical danger to the exhilaration of falling in love or achieving some long-desired successes. “(Ch.1)
Stress can be positive when used wisely, like for example when it is used by businessmen or students to achieve certain goals and to raise their levels of performance. Positive or not, the fact is regardless of the intensity of stress, stress always causes changes in our bodies, changes, which could unfortunately also lead our bodies to disease. On the other hand, stress can also be prevented, reduced or managed, with relaxation techniques, healthy diets, and continuous exercise.
But let’s start understanding the body reaction to stress.
For many years researches have been looking for the relationship between stress and disease. It all starts with the body first response to a stressful situation.
In an article found at www.stress.org, the body response to stress is described as an airplane getting ready to take off, where all the systems, like the heart, blood vessels, immune and digestive systems, and even brain, are modified to meet the perceived danger.
In this same article stress is divided in external and internal stress. External stress, they explain, is when external stressors include adverse physical conditions, like for instance, pain, extreme temperatures, abusive relationships, etc. Internal stress on the other hand, can be physical or psychological, like intensely worrying about an event that may or may not happen.
In a case of acute stress, where the body reacts to an immediate threat, the brain’s hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) system is activated, followed by the production and release of steroid hormones, including cortisol (the primary stress hormone). The HPA system also releases some neurotransmitters (chemical messengers), like adrenaline. While this is going on in our brains, our heart, lungs, circulation and immune systems, are also being affected. Breading becomes rapid, blood flow may increase up to 400%, fluids in the mouth and throat are diverted and digestive activity is shut down. Once the stress case passes and there were no harmful consequences, hormones go back to normal, and the body’s system normalizes. In addition to this, our muscles tense.
This is an extreme case of our body reaction to acute stress. Now, imagine your body going trough this, at a possible lower level, but on a daily basis, or even for long periods of hours, or many times during the same day. No doubt the body will suffer consequences, we even feel them right away, like when we get headaches, and muscle aches after a stressful day. But other consequences we do not feel might be developing, like eventually our hormones might become unbalanced. As a matter of fact, in some people, stress hormones stay elevated instead of going back to their normal levels (which should be the regular reaction after a period of stress). Later, hormonal unbalances consequences can affect our moods, increase depression, and greatly decrease energy and our sexual libido levels.
Furthermore, heart rhythm abnormalities may occur, and immune disorders (higher risk of infections) may rise. In women for example, stress may reduce estrogen levels, which is important for their cardiac system. It’s no news that other negative consequences of stress even end up in more extreme situations, like eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia are common consequences of stress), ulcers, and even strokes.
The www.stress.org article also states other disorders like allergies, skin disorders, and unexplained hair loss, as also common consequences to stress. Some skin disorders they mention are hives, acne, rosacea, eczema and unexplained itching.
After reading the reaction of our bodies to stress, all the hormones that are released, and the changes that it produces in our systems, it is probably easier to understand the degree of danger that stress is able to cause to our bodies. As I stated before, even though stress is part of our everyday life, there are ways to lower it, or to manage it. Fortunately, a healthy diet, exercise, and many other relaxing activities are every time more popular and available to us. I encourage you to try to live a healthy and relaxed life. Informing or educating yourself about the body response to stress was maybe the first step. Now look for natural alternatives, exercise, inform yourself about stress management techniques, and start a free-of-stress life style!
- The American Institute of Stress: www.stress.org Article found in a link: www.reutershealth.com/wellconnected/doc31.html
- The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook. Fifth Edition. Martha Davis, Ph.D. Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, M.S.W., & Matthew McKay, Ph. D. Chapter 1.