Do you remember that blog I used to run? The one where I uploaded semi-regular articles about science-related subjects? Me neither. Whoops.
Safe to say, life got in the way. Work took off, I started planning for 2 house moves, and decided to take on some extra SciComms projects outside of work. I blinked and here we are in August. Sorry, what? August 2019?! So I’m back today, just for a bit, to talk about the effects of psychological stress on the body. Before I start, I’d like to point out there are a vast plethora of interesting studies on the impact of psychological stress, including differences between the sexes, links to depression, cancer, drug addiction and lowered social cognition. I won’t be able to cover all this, but I implore you to do some extra reading if you’re interested.
What is stress?
It’s important to note that stress is a natural part of life. But today, I am going to be focusing on an anxiolytic, psychological distress, describing the feelings an individual has when the demands made on them are greater than their ability to cope. It is classed as a type of psychological pain, experienced when humans perceive something as threatening. Stress can affect all people from all walks of life, and in reality, you will most likely be stressed at multiple points in your life, as it is a standard reaction to a pressured situation. Historically, the biomedical community have been skeptical in the belief that prolonged stress contributes to disease, but nevertheless the role of stress in disease areas such has mental health, cardiovascular disease, and immune function has been well document and explored.
Causes and symptoms
A stressor is any event, experiment, or change in environmental stimilus that causes stress. Stressors are generally looked at from 2 perspectives: internal and external. External stressors are sources from our environment that manipulate our emotions, these include things such as unexpected traumas, changes in life circumstances, or simple everyday hassles. Internal stressors are the sources of stress inside us, the feelings that pop into our heads, usually completely unwanted and unwarranted, such as those panicked thoughts when we tried to sleep, unrealistic expectations, and low self esteem. Different types of stressors have distinct and cumulative effects on health. Chronic stressors, that happen over long periods of time, tend to have the greatest impact, although childhood traumas also have an important effect. Major life events, such as marriage, death of a loved one, moving house or changing jobs can caused a heightened sense of uncertainty and fear, which can eventually lead to stress, but daily hassles, also known as microstressors, such as traffic jams, deadlines at school can cause significant upset too. Interestingly, there are scales used to assess such stressful things. Take a look at the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale if you’re interested!
Initially, a stressor can cause the fight -or-flight response. This response is what you feel when a friend unexpectedly creeps up on you, or you see a spider in the bath. It is your sympathetic nervous system activating, resulting in release of noradrenaline within your nervous system, and ultimate can elicit the realise of adrenaline and cortisol from the adrenal gland. This response has many effects such as increased energy, increased muscle tension, rise in blood pressure and a slowing down of the digestive system . Stress, as we experience it, can manifest itself in what is known as psychosomatic symptoms, normally due to prolonged activation of the fight-or-flight response (see below for more!). with both emotional and physical affects. Some of the symptoms include:
- Feeling irritable, aggressive, impatient or wound up
- Anxiety/ racing thoughts
- Finding it hard to make decisions
- Biting your nails/picking at your skin
- Changes in eating patterns
- Smoking or drinking alcohol more than usual
- shallow breathing / panic attach
- High blood pressure
- Constipation or diarrhoea
- Feeling sick, dizzy or fainting.
Physiological Effects on the body
As alluded to above, a continual activation of fight-flight responses results in what Hans Selye (1993) has described as the general adaptation syndrome (GAD), a series of endocrine reactions thought to be useful in minimise long term damage to the body. The GAD has 3 stages:
- Alarm stage – the initial reaction to stress marked by activation of the fight-flight response. This tends to come and go during the day and you should not develop psychosomatic symptoms from this alone.
- Resistance stage – the body’s reaction to continued stress during which most of the physiological responses return to normal levels, but the body uses vast amounts of energy and bodily stores, such as hormones, glucose and even electrolytes and minerals. This is probably why you may feel tired or drained during stressful times.
- Exhaustion stage – this stage happens over days or weeks, and is the body’s reaction to long-term continuous stressed, marked by actual breakdown in internal organs or weakening of the immune system.
When looking at the long term risks and implications of chronic stress, and stress during childhood, there have been multiple studies suggesting a significant positive correlation with mental health disorders, and with physical health, in areas such as immunity, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Even something so simple as the common cold; one study of 400 participants say that rates of the 5 common cold viruses increased in a dose-response manner when measured against psychological stress, some by up. One 2018 study of over 1000 participants concluded that higher levels of lingering negative effects from every day stress is associated with greater numbers of chronic conditions and worse functional limitations up to 10 years later, and furthermore that efficient stress recovery has real importance for long-term physical health.
As mentioned earlier, stress is normal and natural, and allows us to respond and adapt to our environment. In fact, there are many situations in which a healthy does of stress has proven to be beneficial for improving motivation and adaptation, leading to overall greater ability and performing. Often, being able to cope with stress well, using it as a driving force rather than a hinderance, has shown, according to many studies, a significantly increased rate of job satisfaction and job performance. This is generally referred to as eustress, coming from the Greek root eu- which means “good” (as in “euphoria”). So yes, a little bit of pressure in the run up to your final exams may just be a good thing!
And the take away message is?
Stress is normal. We will all experience it, and for many, the occasional stress of everyday life will pose no significant threat. Often, holistic approaches, such as taking up mindfulness, exercise, or finding new ways to deal with stressors provide the most efficient way to combat stress. For others, more structured treatment may be necessary, such as some forms of behavioural therapy, or even medication for anxiety, for example, beta-blockers can help block the signals of adrenaline that cause the physical manifestations of stress, which can be very beneficial to some people.
One thing I would highly recommend is to talk to someone. A friend, parent or anyone who’ll listen. The expression may be cliche but is often true: a problem shared is a problem halved.
If you feel you are struggling with any form of abnormal stress or anxiety, please visit your GP. See https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-stress/ for more information
Written by Nancy
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