Overview of Stress
A certain amount of stress in life is healthy. The stress response itself creates a level of discomfort that will encourage you to deal with the stressor to make the symptoms of stress stop. These initial symptoms are part of a physiological response passed down from our ancestors, the "fight or flight" response. A complex set of hormonal signals are sparked in the brain response to the perceived threat (or stressor), communicating to all the systems in the body.
Blood flow is diverted to the large muscles, readying the legs to run or the arms to swing and throw punches. Any energy toward digestion or other bodily processes unnecessary for the fight (or flight) are also redirected. The heart rate increases, mental awareness becomes keener, and reflexes become sharper. Our bodies become physiologically prepared to either enter combat or run away as quickly as possible.
Although these symptoms may have saved our ancestors' lives, most of the stressors we experience in modern life are neither as life threatening nor as immediately resolved. Our stress responses do generally scale according to the level of threat of the stressor. We will worry enough about presentations that we will be coaxed to prepare them. We will feel stress about a relationship such that we will potentially confront the person. By enduring and resolving everything that gives us stress in our lives, we maintain our senses of well-being.
Everyone has a different capacity to cope with stress and certainly some people bounce back from stressful situations more quickly than others. Despite these natural abilities that we have to adapt, however, sometimes, a situation may present more stress than we feel we are able to cope with. The failure of a very important life's goal, the end of a long term relationship, or the death of someone we love can be difficult for anybody. How quickly we recover from such stresses depends on our personalities, our other life experiences, and our relationships with those that may try to help us.
Some people have very difficult times bouncing back from or coping with low levels of stress. If a person lives their life in a constant state of stress, the physical symptoms may become chronic and eventually begin to wear them down emotionally, as well. A person can become hypersensitive to stressors, unable to cope with any perceived threat or stressor, leading them to have anxiety disorders, high blood pressure, and other numerous other health complications. Learning to deal with stress in a healthy way is a critical part of maintaining overall wellness and well-being.
Symptoms of Stress
The symptoms to stress vary quite a bit from person to person, though there may be physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral changes that occur in response to stressors.
Physical symptoms during acute stress may include increased heart rate, lightheadedness, dry mouth, sweating, trembling, muscle tension, and feelings of panic. People with chronic stress may develop stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, and fatigue due to the constant physiological stress their bodies are under.
Stress may make it difficult to concentrate, remember things, make decisions, or solve problems. Chronic stress can also lead to depression, anger, anxiety, irritability, hopelessness, or apathy.
Behavioral changes may also be a symptom of stress, as people may alter their lives to avoid or cope with the stressors. Some people experience changes in sleeping or eating patterns. Others may begin to smoke or drink in an effort to quiet the thoughts about whatever is causing them stress. Stress can also lead to more generalized anxieties, inspiring compulsive behaviors in a person to either avoid or prevent stressful things from happening.
Risk Factors of Stress
If stress is not dealt with, it can lead to a variety of physical and mental conditions, some with serious complications. Stress, in itself, is the body's way of coping with a stressor. Some people, in turn, cope with the stress by developing unhealthy habits, such as drinking, smoking, or using illicit drugs, all of which can have health consequences more severe than those from the stress alone. Stress can also significantly alter peoples' eating habits, putting them at risk for becoming overweight or underweight.
The physiological symptoms of stress have an impact on the immune system, which can increase a person's likelihood of becoming ill and reduce their ability to fight off illnesses. Being sick longer and more frequently can then feed into the cycle of stress. Chronic stress may also wear out the adrenal gland, which produces "stress hormones," leading to an exhausting collection of symptoms known as adrenal fatigue syndrome. Stress can also cause undue pressure on the cardiovascular system, keeping the heart rate and blood pressure high. If untreated, both symptoms conditions could lead to heart attack, stroke, aneurysm, and other life-threatening conditions.
All of the worries associated with stress can also lead to insomnia, overwhelming anxiety, and clinical depression. All of these complications exacerbate the stress symptoms, as well. Any sleep disorders, such as insomnia, will intensify the fatigue and wear a person down mentally and physically. Anxiety can give way to panic attacks, in which the stress symptoms are amplified and may occur without warning, even in the absence of a stressor. (Please see our article on Anxiety Disorders for more information). Too much stress can also endanger a person's sense of well-being, leading to the feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, and feelings of detachment that characterize clinical depression.
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