What Is Stress?
Stress is difficult to clinically define, primarily because what stresses one person may not stress another. Medical dictionaries define it as any external event that puts pressure on us and triggers internal hormone responses. Stressful situations range from the trivial everyday annoyances (like a crying child or a rude driver on the road) to major life-altering crises (death of a loved one, divorce or loss of a job). Most doctors agree that while it is not possible to avoid stress, what matters most is controlling how much you face and how you respond to it. When we're stressed our body releases a cascade of hormones, including adrenaline, into our bloodstream. These hormones are useful because they help us stay alert and deal with the cause of the stress. However long-term stress results in a constant stream of hormones which can become highly toxic on our system. It’s like putting rocket fuel in a small car everyday, eventually you kill the engine. If your body sends you warning signals like changing sleep patterns, continual exhaustion and tension headaches, you may need to check your stress levels. Take our online stress test to assess your risk of a developing stress-related illness.
What Does Stress Do To The Body?
The following is a list of the most common symptoms of stress:
• Tiredness - waking up tired.
• Sadness and depression.
• Sleep problems.
• Nervousness and anxiety.
• Unexplained anger or you become angry more easily.
• Lack of interest or motivation in doing anything.
• Tension headaches and migraines.
• Difficulties concentrating.
• Dizziness and faintness: see causes of head problems.
• Chest pain (see all causes of chest pain).
• Irregular periods.
• Recurrent urinary tract infections.
• Recurrent yeast infections (thrush).
• Aches and pains.
• Reduced sexual desire.
• Bloated stomach.
• Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) - see stress and IBS.
• Muscle tension, particularly in the neck and shoulders.
• Hair loss or hair dullness.
• Infertility in both men and women. Read more under causes of infertility.
• Skin complaints like adult acne, hives and rashes.
What Are The Long-Term Affects Of Stress?
Heart Disease: Stress induced heart disease is the number 1 killer of women. Yet, despite this, only 13 percent of women consider heart disease a threat. See: what are the main causes of death in women?
Stroke: Stress induces high blood pressure and the accumulation of fat around the tummy - both are major risk factors for stroke.
Autoimmune Disorders: Women are 2.7 times more likely to develop autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) as a direct result of stress than men.
High Blood Pressure: Although stress does not cause high blood pressure (hypertension), it can keep levels raised longer, so more damage occurs. This raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes. See, why is high blood pressure dangerous?
Breast Cancer: Women who experience severely stressful events, like the death of a loved one, are at increased risk of developing breast cancer within two years of the event. And women who are diagnosed with the disease are more likely to have a recurrence if they are chronically stressed. See, symptoms of breast cancer.
Low Libido: Over 30 percent of women aged 18 to 59 suffer from loss of interest in sex. Read, why have I lost my sex drive?
Muscle Pain: Women are far more likely to experience widespread muscle pain than men, and stress has been linked to pain disorders like fibromyalgia. See, can an accident or trauma trigger fibromyalgia?
Asthma: Doctors have long suspected that stress is a contributing factor to asthma - and women are more likely than men to suffer from asthma.
However, recent studies show it's not as much of a contributory factor was once
thought. See what is asthma?
It is important to note, that while stress may contribute to illness, it is rarely the sole cause. Obesity in women, smoking and other unhealthy lifestyle factors are also highly influential.
What Are The Different Types Of Stress?
The American Digestive Disease Society considers stress a disease, but perhaps this may be a more appropriate way to describe chronic stress, which is the type that tends to lead to illness. There are different types of stress, each with their own characteristics: acute stress, episodic acute stress and chronic stress.
This type of stress is the result of everyday hassles. Examples include dealing with a crying baby, running late for an appointment, trying to meet a 4pm deadline in work and so on. By the end of the day the stress is no longer an issue but you may be left with a tension headache and feel irritable and tired. Fortunately acute stress does not last long enough to cause any physical damage to the body. However, acute stress is not always associated with ‘bad’ events, sometimes it is caused by doing something fun and exciting like singing in front of an audience, making a presentation at work in front of colleagues or hurling down a ski slope. Stress in such situations can be useful because it makes your senses more alert and you are quicker to react to events around you. Scientists call this state of alert our ‘fight-or-flight’ reflexes. It means you are on peak-alert for action. It is an essential part of our biological makeup and was originally intended to help us perceive deadly threats and flee from them. Although essential for survival in life-threatening situations, and sometimes useful when dealing with challenges and deadlines in modern life, the fight-or-flight response is less appropriate for dealing with routine stresses. And yet, as our body has not kept up with changing requirements of modern life, this response is being tapped into more often than it was originally designed for. If triggered often enough (episodic acute stress) it can lead to some serious health problems.
Common signs of acute stress:
• Tension headaches, back pain and jaw pain.
• Anger or irritability.
• Anxiety and depression.
• Heart burn and acid reflux.
• Stomach problems like constipation, diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome.
In a state of fight-or-flight, you may also experience:
• A perceived immediate threat or sense of danger. For example, you are about to make a speech in front of hundreds of people, or you spot your baby playing near a boiling pan of water.
• Dry mouth.
• Sweaty palms.
• Racing heartbeat.
• Sweat production increases.
• Blood pressure rises.
• Pupils (the black part of the eye) dilate.
While we all experience acute stress, fortunately it is very manageable.
Episodic Acute Stress
Acute stress which occurs frequently (episodic) increases the risk of damage to our health. Typically it affects people who live disordered lives or those that can't organize the demands and pressures that are placed on them. To these people, every day is stressful and they seem continually in the clutches of acute stress. Typically they describe themselves as full of 'nervous energy' and always in a hurry. They tend to be abrupt because they have so many tasks to complete and as a result come across as rude or unfriendly. In the workplace, despite perhaps even performing well, their relationships with other colleagues deteriorates and work becomes a stressful place to be. But they are not alone. So-called Type A personalities are also prone to episodic acute stress. These are people who are excessively competitive, impatient, aggressive and always in a hurry. Usually they are deeply insecure. Type A's are much more likely to develop coronary heart disease. Another type of personality that suffers from episodic acute stress are worriers. These people are pessimistic and always assume the worse. They tend to show symptoms of anxiety and depression rather than hostility or anger.
Clear Signs Of Episodic Acute Stress
• Persistent tension headaches.
• Chest pain: see causes of chest conditions.
• Heart disease, proneness to heart attacks.
• Increased need for unhealthy 'treats' like alcohol, junk food, cigarettes.
Treating people with episodic acute stress can be difficult because it may involve a personality change. Often personality and lifestyle issues are so habitual and ingrained that these people see nothing wrong with their life. If things go wrong they tend to blame other people rather than considering the role they may have played. Sufferers can fiercely resist change and it may only be a sudden illness (like a heart attack) that finally gets them to do so.
This kind of stress is grinding, it wears you down day by day and year after year. It is so insidious you may not even be aware that you are living in a constant state of stress. It may not be a response to an obvious event like divorce or death of a loved one; but rather a response to general unhappiness with your place in life. You may feel trapped in a bad marriage, it is the sort of stress caused by persistent poverty or working in a career you dislike. The worst aspect of chronic stress is that, if you are originally aware of it, you get used to it and forget it’s even there. It kills by causing heart attacks, strokes, suicide and probably cancer.
Is All Stress Bad?
No, in certain circumstances bursts of so-called positive stress stimulate creativity, enable change and helps us operate at peak alertness and efficiency. Many people work well under this sort of pressure, as long as they are able to sit back and relax after the challenge has been met. However if you remain hyped up in first gear and are unable to relax, your body starts to become damaged. Signs you are not relaxing could be overlooked - are you drinking more coffee during the day than you used to? Do you need a couple of glasses of wine in the evening because you can't sleep? Are you opting for junk food instead of healthy meals as a way of 'treating' yourself? It’s like a captain of a ship keeping the crew in a state of high alert long after the battle is over. Eventually they become worn, tired and prone to illness. Learning how to relax after a stressful event is essentially what stress management is all about (in addition to finding ways to reduce the amount of stressful events you face or to reframe them so you don’t find them as stressful).
What Happens Chemically When We Are Stressed?
Immediate Response To Stress
1. Brain perceives impending danger or a critical task to be performed.
2. Signals from the brain cause the adrenal glands to produce fight-or-flight hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), which speed up the heart and breathing rates to prepare for muscle movement.
3. Kidney function is reduced so less blood is delivered to the kidneys.
4. Muscle fibers contract in readiness for movement.
5. The pupils of the eyes dilate.
6. Salivary glands stop producing saliva so the mouth dries.
7. The skin becomes pale as surface blood vessels contract to direct more blood to the muscles.
8. Sweat production increases to prevent overheating.
9. The heart rate increases so more blood can be delivered to the muscles.
10. Blood pressure rises.
11. Breathing increases as more oxygen needs to be delivered to the muscles.
12. Liver increases its output of sugar and fat to fuel the muscles.
13. Digestion system and urinary system slow down or cease working to avoid unnecessary energy being expended.
14. Muscles tighten so that you don't urinate or defecate.
Response Under Chronic Stress
Hypertension: Blood pressure remains consistently high. This raises the risk of heart attacks and strokes. It should also be noted, that those who are chronically stressed tend to seek refuge in unhealthy habits like eating fatty foods, smoking cigarettes or drinking more than the recommended daily allowance. All these habits further increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart condition forming.
Cortisol: This is a major stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Excess levels of cortisol block insulin from 'telling' the cells of the body to absorb glucose. Instead the excess glucose is stored as fat, which tends to end up around the tummy. Abdominal fat is associated with type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, inflammation and heart disease. This is why reducing stress-induced cortisol levels is important for our health.
Depression: Increases the risk of depression. Read about the effects of depression.
Ages You: Chronic stress damages our DNA and speeds up the aging process. In fact studies show that the cells of a high-stressed woman are 9 to 17 years older than the cells of a lower-stressed woman. Emotional stress retards cell renewal and breaks down elastin. This leads to sagging and wrinkles. See, what is a wrinkle?
Skin: The largest organ in your body is your skin (yes, it's an organ!) and it directly reflects your physical and mental health. Stress causes adult acne, eczema, psoriasis, hives, rashes, alopecia and vitiligo.
Useful: Respiration System: How and why we breathe, what can go wrong with the system. And, endocrine system, hormones and what they do.
Do Women Have A Different Reaction To Stress Than Men?
Women tend to more sensitive to stress than men. They release more stress hormones than men and the hormones remain in their body longer. They also tend to be more susceptible than men to developing physical symptoms of stress like depression, skin problems and hair loss. In other words, if both a man and a woman are under the same amount of stress, the effects are more likely to manifest physically in the woman and last for longer. But the good news is, you can change your habits and way of thinking to become more stress-resistant.