Stress is a natural physiological response that equips the body to react to potential threats and challenges. Often referred to as the “fight-or-flight” mechanism, stress triggers the release of hormones, such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine, which prepare the body to either confront or evade danger. In the face of stressors, the body undergoes a series of physical changes, including increased blood pressure, heightened muscle readiness, sweating, and heightened alertness. These alterations collectively enhance an individual’s ability to respond to potentially hazardous or challenging situations. Stressors, or the environmental factors that trigger this response, vary and can range from loud noises and aggressive encounters to significant life events, relationship challenges or a first date.
Relationship distress, employment and financial concerns being the most common stressors.
Physiological Impact of Stress
Stress influences various bodily functions. During a stress reaction, some normal processes, such as digestion and immune activity, slow down. Instead, the body redirects its resources to support vital functions like breathing, increased blood flow, alertness, and muscle preparation for sudden use. This leads to immediate changes such as rising blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, increased respiration rate, decreased digestive activity, heightened muscle tension, and reduced drowsiness due to heightened alertness.
Individual responses to stress can vary, determining its overall impact on health. Some individuals can handle multiple stressors without experiencing severe reactions, while others might have a more pronounced response to a single stressor. When a person feels they lack the resources to cope, a stronger stress reaction can lead to health problems.
Types of Stress
There are two main types of stress: acute and chronic. Categorising stressors into routine stress, sudden disruptive changes, and traumatic stress:
1. Acute Stress: This is a short-term, common form of stress, typically triggered by recent events or upcoming challenges. Once the stressor is resolved, acute stress diminishes. It may lead to symptoms such as tension headaches and stomach discomfort.
2. Chronic Stress: Chronic stress develops over an extended period, often due to ongoing life circumstances, like poverty, family dysfunction, or an unhappy marriage. This type of stress is more damaging and can affect various bodily systems, potentially leading to conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental health disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Causes of Stress
The causes of stress are diverse and highly individual. While one person may find a situation stressful, another may not. A person’s mental health, prior experiences, and feelings of frustration or anxiety can influence their stress response. Common life events that trigger stress include job-related issues, bereavement, family problems, illness, and major life changes. Additionally, fear of accidents, crime, health and waiting for significant outcomes can be stress-inducing. Some individuals may experience ongoing stress after traumatic events, diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Symptoms and Complications of Stress
The physical effects of stress encompass symptoms like sweating, pain in the back or chest, muscle cramps, fainting, headaches, and nervous twitches. Emotional reactions may involve anger, burnout, concentration problems, fatigue, insecurity, forgetfulness, irritability, nail biting, restlessness, and sadness. Stress-related behaviours include food cravings, drug and alcohol misuse, social withdrawal, and relationship problems. When stress becomes chronic, it can lead to a range of complications, including anxiety, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, lower immunity, muscle aches, PTSD, sleep disturbances, stomach upset, and sexual problems like erectile dysfunction and loss of libido.
CBT Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a therapy I use in my practice to help people improve their QOL Quality of life. You do not need to live life stressed!