Your body is constantly trying to rebalance itself to maintain homeostasis. If all things are correct and your stress is minimal you’ll have a happy environment of good chemistry, temperature and pressure. You’ll be in a low stress zone. It’s when things go wrong that it will affect your stress and health.
Stress and health
If you have stress that’s extreme or very unusual and long-lasting, the normal ways of keeping your body in balance will not be enough to find stress relief. You will be pulled out of balance and your body will show many signs of stress.
You may find that your response to stress has triggered a wide-ranging set of body changes called General Adaptation Syndrome—a systematic cycle of breakdown. This has been adapted from Hans Selye’s groundbreaking work about the stress cycle.
Let’s look at the progression of stress; don’t get bogged down in the details.
Stage I. Alarm reaction—this is created by a stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal medulla. This first stage is immediate and short-lived. The endocrine system releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that rush through the whole body. Tremendous amounts of glucose and oxygen are sent to the muscles and organs. Your brain is activated, your heart pumps furiously and fat and protein are released from your liver. Breathing rate increases, sweat increases and digestion decreases. You are ready for stress!
You can have positive effects on your health from stress when it’s managed and short-lived; and this is the challenge in life.
All of the responses in alarm reaction are designed to increase circulation rapidly, make energy and decrease all nonessential activities. But if the stress is great enough, body reactions may not be able to cope and severe illness or death can, and often do, result. We see this all the time and wonder what happened; “the person was so healthy.” Apparently not.
Many times people have sweaty hands or rapid heart rate and high blood pressure when there is no immediate stress. This is certainly a continuation of the alarm reaction stage. When the body is still in a hyper-vigilant state and has not turned down its reaction this is known as the stress response and this will continue indefinitely. Are your heart rate and blood pressure at their optimum levels?
As stress and your reactions to it continue, you move into the next stage of the stress response.
Stage II. Resistance reaction—as stress continues the brain and adrenal gland secrete more hormones. More protein is broken down into sugar to be used for energy. Blood sugar levels return to normal. Blood pH returns to normal but blood pressure stays high mostly because of water retention. More of the stress hormone cortisol is released and leads to an increase in fat around organs…the gut.
All of us have gone through the resistance stage. Some people however, continue through this for long periods of time. If the stress is severe or the resistance stage continues, the body gives up and moves into the third and final stage.
Stage III. Exhaustion—this is the final stage of stress. Cells lose function, become less effective and begin to die. Blood sugar levels drop and cells don’t receive nutrients. Organs become weak. The heart, blood vessels and adrenal glands are put through tremendous demands that will eventually drive a person in this stage into significant ill-health. Unless this stage is rapidly reversed, vital organs cease functioning and the person dies.
The brain and the effects of stress
Chronic stress affects the brain. Stress-related hormones alter physical structures in the brain, the hippocampus, in ways that affect memory, learning and mood. Take a look at what happens after a major trauma. The three cycles of stress are accelerated and this varies only in degrees between people and how they can handle the stress.
People that have experienced post traumatic stress disorder have high levels of cortisol that shrink the size of the brain. The stressful experience must be addressed appropriately otherwise the stress response will continue progressing.
Another part of the brain that is affected by stress is the amygdala—the part that regulates fear and other emotions. During chronic stress the amygdala grows larger while the hippocampus shrinks. The amygdala is the seat of emotions and the hippocampus is the place of memory.
As the amygdala grows in size, anxiety and fear are the major emotions sensed. (The amygdala becomes larger and more active in people who are depressed). But because the hippocampal cells involved in memory are shrinking and not transmitting information effectively, a person can’t connect the feelings of fear to memories of real events. This is how and why emotions are produced after significant stress and can alter a person’s emotional state.
How is stress impacting your life? How is stress affecting your health? How is it affecting your mind? Have you noticed your emotions change when you are stressed?
Start your care by monitoring yourself. When your heart rate or blood pressure increase is it because of physical activity or from an emotional event that you played out in your head? When does your breathing rate change? When do you sweat more; at night, in the afternoon?
All these physiological signs give tremendous clues to how you are dealing with stress. Your first job is to begin to notice when they’re happening. But next, you need to determine what kinds of stress are causing them to take place. Finally, the appropriate management of the stress and your physical and emotional output needs to be applied.