Stress is a natural reaction to pressure that helps you adapt to new situations. Feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope occurs when pressure persists with no opportunity for recovery.
Events likely to trigger the stress response are when you experience something new, unexpected, threats to your self-esteem, or when you feel you have little control over a situation. This can result from any number of situations including financial worries, unreasonable workload or arguments with a friend or family member.
At Schoen Clinic Chelsea, our specialists are experts in the diagnosis and treatment of stress disorders.
What is stress?
Your body responds to situations that make you feel threatened or upset by producing a stress reaction. This can result in a number of physical symptoms, as well as changes in your behaviour and more intense emotions.
The stress response occurs when your body produces a surge of stress hormones that, when released, assist you to cope with challenges and threats. This is known as the "fight or flight" response.
Everyone reacts differently to stress, and it's important to understand the long-term consequences it can have on your mental and physical health. How sensitive you are to stress and how much patience you have in a difficult situation determines your health outcome. The five most common stress reactions are shown below, with the first three being the most common and the last two being optimum responses:
1. Freeze response:
In stressful conditions you will hyperventilate and become crippled and overwhelmed as a result of the situation.
2. Fight response:
You become agitated and aggressive as a way of demonstrating that you are prepared to fight.
3. Flight response
When you want to escape from a situation or entirely avoid it, you will have a tendency to withdraw from a stressful situation.
4. Challenge response:
When you see stress as a challenge, your body is immediately programmed to produce extra energy and willpower to face it head on. You don't feel threatened, your heart rate rises, and you're more concerned with dealing with the situation than blaming yourself.
5. Seek help response:
This reaction encourages you to seek assistance and become more social. When you ask for help, you naturally make yourself vulnerable, which makes you more receptive to positive reinforcement from others. More women than men demonstrate this response to stress.
If you have long-term (chronic) stress, the stress response continues to activate, causing wear and tear on your body resulting physical, mental, and behavioural problems.
The science behind stress
The stress response is controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain. When the stress response is initiated, it stimulates a gland in the brain called the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which stimulates the adrenal glands in your kidneys to produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Cortisol receptors are found in nearly all cells in the body shutting down what isn’t necessary to your immediate survival. Cortisol increases your heart rate and blood pressure, suppresses your immune system, your digestion, which elevates your stress levels. It also boosts your energy by releasing fat and sugar into your system. In contrast to acute stress, which generates a constant feeling of being attacked, difficulties occur when you encounter ongoing, chronic stress.
Adrenaline floods your body within minutes of being in a stressful environment. Blood arteries contract to transfer blood to the heart, lungs, and other important muscle groups as air passages dilate, sending more oxygen to the muscles to help you fight or run. Your physical strength and performance are significantly enhanced. Even when hurt, adrenaline dulls your body's pain receptors, allowing you to run or fight. The effects of adrenaline might last for up to an hour after the stressful event has passed. However, high quantities of adrenaline can have a negative impact on your metabolism and immune system.
What causes stress?
Stress can be caused by many different of reasons. The most common reasons are work, money, and relationships with partners, children, and other family members. Divorce, unemployment, relocation, and bereavement are all major life events that can cause stress. A series of minor annoyances like feeling underappreciated at work or arguing with a family member can also cause stress.
Even positive life changes can cause stress, like buying your first home, getting promoted at work or planning a social event. If you're stressed in these situations, you could have a difficult time understanding why, or you might be reluctant to share your feelings with others.
Sometimes there are occasions when no clear causes exist.
Healthy vs unhealthy stress
Under normal circumstances, the physical reaction to change, known as the stress response, keeps you alert and motivated, helping you to cope when you undertake new things like moving home or starting a new job. Healthy levels of stress help you reach your goals and make you feel in control.
Once the stressful situation is over, your stress hormones will usually return to normal, and there will be no long-term effects. The difference between healthy and unhealthy stress is how long the stress reaction lasts.
Short-term stress has been shown to improve brain function, elevating alertness and raising cognitive and behavioural functions to optimal levels, but only if it lasts for a short time. (Elizabeth D Kirby et al. University of California, 2013).
However, long term consequences to short-term but very severe stress is still possible and could lead to conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder.
Under challenging circumstances where the solution to pressure is difficult or impossible to resolve, like the death of a loved one or homelessness, the stress response ceases to be beneficial. Long-term stress can cause a number of major health problems, including heart disease and mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
What are the symptoms of chronic stress?
Everyone is affected by stress, which manifests itself in different ways psychologically, physically, and behaviourally.
However, excessive stress can be detrimental. It might put you in a constant state of fight or flight, leaving you feeling overwhelmed or helpless. This can have a long-term impact on your physical and emotional health.
While everyone is affected differently by stress, there are certain common indications and symptoms to look out for:
- Constant worry or anxiety
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty concentrating
- Mood swings or changes in mood
- Irritability or having a short temper
- Memory problems
- Panic attacks
- Anger or aggression
Physical symptoms can sometimes accompany these emotions, making you feel much worse.
- Headaches, dizziness or shaking
- Muscle tension or jaw clenching
- Aches and pains
- Digestive problems such as indigestion, bloating, constipation or diarrhoea
- Shallow breathing or hyperventilating
- Racing heart
- Chest pain
- High blood pressure
- Weak immune system
- Exhaustion or insomnia
- Difficulty relaxing
- Low self-esteem
- Eating more or less than usual or develop an eating disorder
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Using alcohol, tobacco or illegal drugs to relieve stress
- Loss of sex drive
- Compulsive behaviour
- Exercise less
How to cope with chronic stress
Chronic stress can make it seem impossible to reclaim control of your life, but there are ways of coping with stress that can help you build up your resilience. It's critical to start practising stress management techniques as soon as possible as they can provide quick stress relief, help you develop resilience to stress and you can learn new coping skills.
Identifying triggers, creating coping and avoidance methods, reaching out to friends and family or joining a self-help group, and practising mindfulness are all self-help techniques. It is also important to get enough quality sleep, eat healthy and nutritious food, and take regular exercise.