- Stress is a normal part of life that can either help us learn and grow or can cause us significant problems.
- Stress releases powerful neurochemicals and hormones that prepare us for action (to fight or flee).
- If we don’t take action, the stress response can create or worsen health problems.
- Prolonged, uninterrupted, unexpected, and unmanageable stresses are the most damaging types of stress.
- Stress can be managed by seeking support from loved ones, regular exercise, meditation or other relaxation techniques, structured timeouts, and learning new coping strategies to create predictability in our lives.
- Many behaviors that increase in times of stress and maladaptive ways of coping with stress — drugs, pain medicines, alcohol, smoking, and eating — actually worsen the stress and can make us more reactive (sensitive) to further stress.
- While there are promising treatments for stress, the management of stress is mostly dependent on the ability and willingness of a person to make the changes necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
What is stress?
Stress is simply a fact of nature — forces from the inside or outside world affecting the individual. The individual responds to stress in ways that affect the individual as well as their environment. Because of the overabundance of stress in our modern lives, we usually think of stress as a negative experience, but from a biological point of view, stress can be a neutral, negative, or positive experience.
In general, stress is related to both external and internal factors. External factors include the physical environment, including your job, your relationships with others, your home, and all the situations, challenges, difficulties, and expectations you’re confronted with on a daily basis. Internal factors determine your body’s ability to respond to, and deal with, the external stress-inducing factors. Internal factors which influence your ability to handle stress include your nutritional status, overall health and fitness levels, emotional well-being, and the amount of sleep and rest you get.
Stress has driven evolutionary change (the development and natural selection of species over time). Thus, the species that adapted best to the causes of stress (stressors) have survived and evolved into the plant and animal kingdoms we now observe.
Man is the most adaptive creature on the planet because of the evolution of the human brain, especially the part called the neo-cortex. This adaptability is largely due to the changes and stressors that we have faced and mastered. Therefore, we, unlike other animals, can live in any climate or ecosystem, at various altitudes, and avoid the danger of predators. Moreover, most recently, we have learned to live in the air, under the sea, and even in space, where no living creatures that we know of have ever survived. So then, what is so bad about stress?
Excess stress can manifest itself in a variety of emotional, behavioral, and even physical symptoms, and the symptoms of stress vary enormously among different individuals. Common somatic (physical) symptoms often reported by those experiencing excess stress include sleep disturbances or changes in sleeping habits, muscle tension, muscle aches, headache, gastrointestinal problems, and fatigue. Symptoms of many preexisting medical conditions can also worsen during times of stress. Emotional and behavioral symptoms that can accompany excess stress include nervousness, anxiety, changes in eating habits including overeating or undereating, loss of enthusiasm or energy, and mood changes, like irritability and depression. Of course, none of these signs or symptoms means for certain that there is an elevated stress level since all of these symptoms can be caused by other medical and/or psychological conditions.
It is also known that people under stress have a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as excessive use or abuse of alcohol and drugs, cigarette smoking, and making poor exercise and nutritional choices, than their less-stressed counterparts. These unhealthy behaviors can further
increase the severity of symptoms related to stress, often leading to a “vicious cycle” of symptoms and unhealthy behaviors.
The experience of stress is highly individualized. What constitutes overwhelming stress for one person may not be perceived as stress by another. Likewise, the symptoms and signs of poorly managed stress will be different for each person.
Stress comes in many forms and affects people of all ages and all walks of life. No external standards can be applied to predict stress levels in individuals — one need not have a traditionally stressful job to experience workplace stress, just as a parent of one child may experience more parenting stress than a parent of several children. The degree of stress in our lives is highly dependent upon individual factors such as our physical health, the quality of our interpersonal relationships, the number of commitments and responsibilities we carry, the degree of others’ dependence upon us, expectations of us, the amount of support we receive from others, and the number of changes or traumatic events that have recently occurred in our lives.
But it is possible to make some generalizations. People with adequate or strong social support networks report less stress and overall improved mental health in comparison to those without adequate social support. People who are poorly nourished, who get inadequate sleep, or who are physically unwell also have a reduced capacity to handle pressures and stresses of everyday life and may report higher stress levels. Some stressors are particularly associated with certain age groups or life stages. Children, teens, newly married, working parents, single parents, and seniors are examples of the groups who often face common stressors related to life transitions.
As one example of stress related to a life transition, the teen years often bring about an increase in perceived stress as young adults learn to cope with increasing demands and pressures along with changes in their bodies. Studies have shown that excessive stress during the teen years can have a negative impact upon both physical and mental health later in life. For example, teen stress is a risk factor for the development of depression, a serious condition that carries an increased risk of suicide.
Fortunately, effective stress-management strategies can diminish the ill effects of stress. The presence of intact, strong, supportive social support networks among friends, family, educational and religious or other group affiliations can help reduce the subjective experience of stress during the teen years. Recognition of the problem and helping teens develop stress-management skills can also be valuable preventive measures. In severe cases, a physician or other health-care professional can recommend counseling or other treatments that can reduce the long-term risks of teen stress.
What is the healthy response to stress?
A key aspect of a healthy adaptational response to stress is the time course. Responses must be initiated rapidly, maintained for a proper amount of time, and then turned off to ensure an optimal result. An over-response to stress or the failure to shut off a stress response can have negative biological and mental-health consequences for an individual. Healthy human responses to stress involve three components:
- The brain handles (mediates) the immediate response. This response signals the adrenal medulla to release epinephrine and norepinephrine.
- The hypothalamus (a central area in the brain) and the pituitary gland initiate (trigger) the slower maintenance response by signaling the adrenal cortex to release cortisol and other hormones.
- Many neural (nerve) circuits are involved in the behavioral response. This response increases arousal (alertness, heightened awareness), focuses attention, inhibits feeding and reproductive behavior, reduces pain perception, and redirects behavior.
The combined results of these three components of the stress response maintain the internal balance (homeostasis) and optimize energy production and utilization. They also gear up the organism for a quick reaction through the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS operates by increasing the heart rate, increasing blood pressure, redirecting blood flow to the heart, muscles, and brain and away from the gastrointestinal tract, and releasing fuel (glucose and fatty acids) to help fight or flee the danger.
How does the response to stress work?
While the complete story is not fully known, scientists understand much about how the response to stress works. The two main systems involved are the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). (These systems are described later.) Triggered (activated) primarily by an area in the brain stem (lowest part of brain) called the locus coeruleus, the SNS results in the secretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine. The following are the five most important concepts to remember about these two systems:
- They are governed by a feedback loop to regulate their response. (In a feedback loop, increased amounts of a substance — for example, a hormone — inhibit the release of more of that substance, while decreased amounts of the substance stimulate the release of more of that substance.)
- They interact with each other.
- They influence other brain systems and functions.
- Genetic (inherited) variability affects the responses of both systems. (That is, depending on their genes, different people can respond differently to similar stresses.)
- Prolonged or overwhelming responses of these systems can be harmful to an individual.