01 Jul Stress- Part 1
Meetings; deadlines; soccer practice; dinner; balancing the check book; dealing with the boss… Each of us, woman or man, adult or child, is faced with a myriad of stressors each day. More intense life stressors including the death of a loved one; a move; divorce; and illness can also confront us from time to time.
It is our perception of stress and how we deal with it, rather than the stressor itself which is important. That’s because one person’s stress may be another person’s pleasure (think of those thrill-seekers who jump off cliffs and chase wild animals). There are numerous common signs and symptoms of stress and different people express stress differently. That being said, stress is now widely recognized to have major impact on health. The medical community and lay people are fast learning that stress deserves our attention.
In this two part series, we’ll focus on stress and its effects on the body, both positive, and negative. This month’s newsletter will define stress, explain why it is necessary and productive (to a point), and draw attention to the physiological effects of stress. In next month’s newsletter, we’ll talk about the effects of chronic stress and what to do about it.
So, what is stress?:
Hans Selye first defined stress in 1936 as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. What’s important is to differentiate the word “stressor”, the stimulus, from “stress”, the response when a person perceives the stimulus to exceed his or her resources. So stress is really that feeling of not being in control; not having what it takes to deal with a particular situation.
Stress; the good, and the bad:
Stress has received a bad rep, but stress is not all bad. Stress evolved as an adaptive response to ensure our survival in dangerous situations. Even what we perceive as positive events in our life can be stressful. In fact, the response of the body to “a positive stressor” (like winning a race) is very similar to the response to a “bad stressor” (like speaking in public). Stress, to a point, is a great motivator. It has been found to increase productivity. Problems arise when we experience intense or chronic stress.
Why do we stress?:
As mentioned earlier, the origin of stress is an adaptive response. When your neighbor’s dog runs after you as you walk across your lawn, you want to be able to run back inside (quickly) or fend off that dog with the newspaper you just retrieved. This is known as the “fight or flight response” and it really does serve its purpose. Stressors mobilize our body’s resources to act quickly in high-intensity situations which require rapid response. Unfortunately, in the world we live in, we are often faced with very intense, and long term situations which are not life threatening but definitely deplete our resources.
What are the physiological effects of stress?:
The stress response is designed to shunt the body’s resources away from “non-essential functions” (like digestion, growth, immunity, libido) toward the functions which are essential to survival. Stress triggers the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to release many hormones; chief amongst them being adrenaline and cortisol. The release of these hormones causes the following responses in the body:
• Increased heart rate and blood pressure (to circulate energy and oxygen throughout the body)
• Increased respiration rate (again, to get that oxygen to the cells)
• Pupil dilation (all the better to see you with, my dear!)
• Increased blood sugar and blood fats (for energy)
• Shunting of blood from the skin surface to the large muscle groups (so you can run, or fight)
• Decreased protein synthesis
• Decreased motility of the large intestine but increases stomach secretions
• Relaxation of the bladder (this explains the need to urinate in frightening situations)
• Impaired immunity
• Faster blood clotting and localized inflammation (just in case!)
• Decreased saliva production and thickening of saliva ( “cotton mouth”)
• Stimulation of sweat glands and production of “goose bumps”
Over the short term, these effects of the SNS are both productive and necessary to our survival. However, our bodies are designed to respond to short term stressors and then revert back to a state in which the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is dominant and functions such as digestion, immunity, and reproduction are favored. If you take a look at the list above, you can see how long term, constant stimulation of the SNS can cause damaging effects to our health and wellbeing.
In next month’s newsletter, we’ll talk about the effects of chronic stress and discuss some measures to prevent and moderate the stress response.
Please Note: This information is for educational purposes only. Consultation with a licensed health care practitioner is recommended for anyone suffering from a health ailment. You are free to use the information in this newsletter or pass it on to others, but please keep it intact and credit it to Dr. Leat Kuzniar, ND.