Hans Selye, MD was endocrinologist known for his studies of the effects of stress on the human body. He concluded that to reduce stress we must adopt habits that minimize stressful demands.
He discovered that the body’s ability to control or reduce the stress has limits. This limited ability to adapt to stress is even more noticeable when the body is exposed to the stressor continuously.
General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS):
Stage 1: Alarm reaction
The immediate reaction to a stressor, is the “flight or fight response”. The body perceives a stressor as a threat or danger and releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones enable the body to perform activities beyond the range of normal ability.
Stage 2: Resistance
This occurs after the body has responded to a stressor, and the stress level has been reduced or removed. The body’s defenses become weaker, as it needs to divert energy to the damaged tissues and lower the production of stress hormones.
The body remains vigilant, especially when the stressors persist and the body is required to fight them continuously, although the response is weaker than the initial response.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
With long-term exposure to a stressor, the body starts to lose the ability to combat the stressor and to reduce its harmful impact; the adaptive energy is drained. It leads to “burnout” or “stress overload,” the individual is vulnerable to health problems. Catastrophic disease may occur.
How Stress Affects The Body
When the body is stressed, muscles become tense; it’s an automatic response, the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain. With the sudden onset of stress, the muscles tense all at once, then release their tension when the stress passes.
Chronic stresscauses the body to be in a constant state of guardedness. When muscles are tense over a long period of time, it may trigger other reactions of the body and promote stress-related disorders. Tension-type and migraine headaches are associated with chronic muscle tension in the area of the shoulders, neck, and head.
Relaxation techniques have been shown to effectively reduce muscle tension, decrease the incidence of certain stress-related disorders, such as headache, and increase a sense of well-being.
Stress can affect your breathing patterns and your respiratory system. For those with asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, getting the oxygen needed to breathe can be difficult, the stress can actually trigger asthma attacks.
The heart and blood vessels work together to provide nourishment and oxygen throughout the body, and they play an important role in the stress response. Acute stress causes an increase in heart rate and stronger contractions of the heart muscle. The stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline) mediate the response.
Blood vessels to the large muscles and the heart dilate, increasing the amount of blood flow to those parts of the body and elevating blood pressure. Once the acute stress is removed, the body returns to its normal state.
Chronic, long-term stress can contribute to problems of the heart and blood vessels.The consistent increase in blood pressure and heart rate, as well as the higher level of circulating stress hormones, take a toll on health. They increase the risk of hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attack and stroke.
Recurrent acute and persistent chronic stress can contribute to inflammation in the circulatory system, especially the coronary arteries.It is believed that it’s such inflammation that ties stress to heart attacks. Chronic stress can also elevate total cholesterol levels.
How Stress Affects Your Health
The stress response is automatic, developed in our ancestors to protect them from predators. Faced with danger, stress hormones flood the body, boosting energy, and readying it to fight the problem. People face multiple challenges every day. Regardless of the source of the stress, the body reacts in much the same way.
When stress interferes with daily life for an extended period of time, it gradually takes a greater and greater toll on the body and mind, leading to fatigue, inability to concentrate, and irritable mood. Chronic stress can cause disease, either because of changes in the body or because of the overeating, smoking, and other high-risk behaviors people employ to cope with stress. Job strain is associated with increased risk of coronary artery disease. Depression and low levels of social support increase risk for cardiovascular disease. When illness occurs, stress can make it harder to recover.
What To Do
Reducing stress makes a person feel better immediately, and can help protect health long-term.
Some simple methods for reducing stress include:
Identify what’s causing the stress. Be aware of your state of mind throughout the day. If you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts and mood. When you know what’s bothering you, you can develop a plan for coping. That may mean more realistic expectations of yourself and others, and perhaps asking for help with your job or your home. Determine your priorities and eliminate nonessential tasks. Make sure you have some time each day that is your own and nobody else’s.
Build strong relationships. Relationships can be a source of stress or serve as stress relievers. Reach out to family members and close friends. They can offer practical advice, emotional support and perhaps a different perspective on the stressor.
Walk away. When you’re angry, walk away and reconsider before you react.
Physical activity can help you work off steam. It’s a natural stress-reliever and increases endorphins. Commit to a daily walk or other form of exercise.
Rest your mind. Stress interferes with sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene and try to get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Cut back on caffeine and stimulating activity. Eliminate the use of computers or television before bed; even better, take them out of the bedroom entirely. Yoga and relaxation exercises will help to reduce stress and boost the immune system.
Get help from a professional. A mental health professional can teach you how to identify situations or behaviors that act as stressors. Develop an action plan for change.
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