We all know how it feels to be stressed out. But what actually causes stress and what does it do to our bodies? How do we avoid the damaging effects of stress?
A medical definition of stress is that which disturbs a person’s mental and physical well-being. However, a more common definition is that stress is a heightened response to both routine and out-of-the-ordinary conditions and events.
Stress takes a daunting toll on our nation’s health and finances. Studies and surveys show that:
* 70 to 80 percent of all visits to the doctor are for stress-related illnesses.
* People who experience high levels of anxiety are four to five times more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke.
* Stress contributes to approximately 50 percent of all illnesses.
* Stress-related injuries on the job have increased from 5 percent to more than 15 percent of all occupational disease during the past 10 years.
* The cost of job stress in North America is estimated at $200 billion annually; this includes costs of absenteeism, lost productivity and insurance claims
* 7 out of 10 people surveyed said they felt stressed in a typical workday.
* Approximately 43 percent of those interviewed said they suffer noticeable physical symptoms of burnout.
Stress is a natural part of being human and can function as a source of motivation as well as a catalyst for problem-solving. Not all stress results from crises and obstacles. Stress can also be triggered by events that create intense feelings of happiness or excitement. So how do you identify harmful stress, how does it hurt you, and how can you manage it in your life?
What causes stress?
Our 21st-century lives are full of stress. We live in a fast-paced world where technology enables people to be active 24 hours a day. Our ancestors were forced to go to bed when daylight ended: in contrast, electricity allows us to stretch our working hours around the clock. We are now linked globally by jet travel and telecommunications, which contribute to the frenetic work pace. Our contemporary culture has a reverence for productivity at work; as a result, many people are under pressure to work longer and harder. Consequently, people often abandon leisure activities and family time.
Causes of stress are termed stressors. Stressors can be physical or emotional, internally or externally generated. Various stimuli, including physical violence and internal conflicts, can be found at the root of stress. Major life events, such as putting an elderly parent in a nursing home, a birth or a death, and a marriage or a divorce, are common sources of stress. Minor incidents, such as bouncing a check or being stuck in a traffic jam, can also be stressors.
Responding to stressors
A physiological process occurs as the body reacts to a stressor. This “fight or flight” mechanism is triggered by the autonomic nervous system and can be a lifesaver in times of danger. The brain releases the stimulating stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (also called adrenaline) into the system. As a result, the heart beats faster, blood pressure rises, muscles tense, the senses sharpen and metabolism changes. The entire physical system is now prepared to respond to an attack. Physiologically, one feels apprehension, tension and nervousness. This reaction is clearly helpful when we’re in immediate physical danger. However, all too often, the “danger” the body is responding to is loss of a job, prolonged illness, or death of a loved one. Many modem stressors do not go away quickly, so the body stays primed to react. Ongoing exposure to stress can result in mental and physical symptoms such as anxiety and depression, heart palpitations and muscular aches and pains. If the stress is not removed or reduced , illness often follows.
A physical effect
When the body is responding to a stressor, breathing is quick and shallow. As a result, the flow of oxygen is depleted and cells are deprived of oxygen, which they need for maintenance and health. Being in a chronic state of stress also shuts down functions such as metabolism, causing indigestion, heartburn and decreased sex drive. Stress also weakens the cardiovascular and immune systems and generally depletes any of the body’s vulnerable areas.
The cardiovascular system can suffer some of the most debilitating effects of chronic stress. Stress can cause increased levels of cholesterol and other lipids in the blood and can accelerate the development of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and other types of damage to blood vessels. Stress hormones may result in the presence of excessive cortisol, which can produce lesions in the heart muscles that, over time, can cause the heart to pump so erratically that death may result.
Research is also showing that stress has a negative impact on the immune system. Stress triggers hormones that are thought to inhibit the activity of white blood cells–the cells that fight off disease. These hormones have also been connected to cancer in some recent studies. Stress hormones also decrease the size of the thymus, which is responsible for the development and maintenance of the body’s immune system. Researchers acknowledge that Iong-term stress definitely suppresses the immune response.
Deborah Morrison is a Writer, Therapist, Counsellor and Speaker from Ontario, Canada. She has written numerous articles on health, healing and spiritual life. Her first book showed her visionary capacity and shares similarities with Blake & Gibran. She has also co-authored a novel of spiritual depth with Arvind Singh called Nexus.