Generally, stress refers to a feeling which is created when reacting to certain events. It is the body’s way of rising to a specific challenge and preparing to meet a tough situation with focus, stamina, heightened alertness and strength. Brown et al further defines stress as a selective pressure that derives from the physical and social environment (3). These are mostly challenging or threatening to the survival, integrity and reproductive success of individuals and groups. Stress therefore is the body’s way of responding to any kinds of demands, be they small or large in magnitude. Stress may be defined as eustress, which is a term referring t o positive stress or distress, a term referring to negative stress or situations (Canfield, Hansen & Godwin 92). Positive stress contains the following characteristics: It is short-term, portrays feelings of excitement, is perceived as within the human coping capabilities, improves performance and motivates. Distress on the other hand causes anxiety, can be short or long-term, portrays a feeling of unpleasantness, decreases performance, is perceived to be outside our coping abilities and can lead to mental and physical problems.
Stressors are defined by Stanford & Salmon as events that provoke stress (156). These cover a wide range of situations, from outright physical danger to making a class presentation. Considering the length of time, daily hassles in addition to life changing events may well result in stress. It may be categorized in the forms of natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, pestilence; manmade disasters like war, economic conditions, technological inventions amongst others; and, personal experiences such as poverty, migration, diseases, separation or divorce. These fall under negative stressors. Positive stressors include receiving promotion at work, marriage, employment, taking a vacation.
In addition, stressors are not always limited to situations where some external situation is creating a problem. Internal events such as feelings and thoughts as well as habitual behaviors can also cause negative stress. Commonly internally caused sources of distress include: fears, unrealistic perfectionist expectations, worrying about future events and repetitive thought patterns. Habitual behavior patterns such as over scheduling, procrastination, and failing to be assertive may also be ultimate causers of stress (Bickerstaff 31).
Stress Response System
The human body responds to stressors through the activation of the nervous system and specific hormones. The adrenal glands are signaled by the hypothalamus to produce more of the adrenaline hormones as well as cortisol and release them to the blood stream. These hormones are entitled to speeding up the heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism. Blood vessels then open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, thus alerting the muscles. Pupils dilate to improve vision and the liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase the body’s energy. Sweat is then produced to cool the body. Such physical changes are preparations to react quickly and effectively so as to handle the pressure of the moment. This natural reaction is referred to as the stress response and communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear (Stanford & Salmon 334).
The adrenaline increases the heart rate, elevates the blood pressure and boosts energy supplies while cortisol, a primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the blood stream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. It also curbs against functions that are nonessential in a fight or flight situation and alters immune system responses, and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes (335).
The stress response system is mostly self-regulating. It decreases hormone levels and enables the body to return to normalcy after the passing of a perceived threat. As the adrenaline and cortisol levels decrease, the heart rate and blood pressure equally return to baseline and other body systems resume their regular activities. However, a constant presence of stressors in one’s life which may trigger a constant feeling of stress, tense, fight or flight to stay turned on eventually result in a situation where one has less control over potentially stress inducing events, creating more uncertainty and a more likely scenario of feeling stressed. The long-term activation of the stress response system and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and adrenaline may disrupt the body’s processes putting one at increased of numerous health problems such as the heart disease, sleep problems, digestive problems, depression, obesity, memory impairment and eczema (Brown 332).
One’s reaction to potentially stressful events varies from another and may be influenced by genetic factors and life experiences. Genetics, in the sense that, the genes which control the stress response keep people on an even keel, only occasionally priming the body for fight or flight. Overeactive or underreactive responses may stem from slight differences in these genes. Life experiences on the other hand are influenced by environmental factors. Being exposed to extremely stressful scenarios when young such as neglect or abuse may result in increased vulnerability to stress when one matures into an adult (Bickerstaff 16).
General Adaptation Syndrome
Stress was recognized by Hans Selye as a major cause of illness (18). He categorized the stress response in three phases which he referred to as the general adaptation syndrome. These are basically the alarm stage, the resistance stage and the exhaustion stage. The alarm stage occurs when one is under threat or frightened. The body goes to total alertness, releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These increase one’s strength and concentration (13). The heart speeds up, sending more oxygen and blood to the muscles for one to be able to take quick action. This ‘fight or flight’ response can be lifesaving but if prolonged can take a toll on one’s body. The resistance stage on the other hand occurs after the initial extreme reaction. Here, the body tries to adapt to the continued stress. It remains alert but at a lower level while trying to resume its normal functions. Once the stress passes, one is able to rebuild defenses. If this is lengthened, the exhaustion stage takes over. This stage is known as the burnout or overload phase. Continued pounding as a result of stress depletes the body’s reserves putting one at risk of a disease. This sequence may happen in response to either a physical or emotional threat. Facing multiple long-term stressors strain one’s system and can easily and quickly cause exhaustion (Brown 255).
Effects of stress
Stress can have effects throughout one’s body on both the physical and mental health. It can affect; the digestion system as stress hormones slow the release of stomach acid and interfere with how well the stomach can empty itself. This may cause stomachaches, may cause diarrhea as the same hormones cause the colon t o work faster. The heart, brain and blood vessels; high levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, increase the heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These raise the risk for heart attacks and strokes. The immune system normally responds to infections by releasing chemicals that aid in the healing process. Stress response weakens the immune system, slowing the healing process and increase the risk of catching colds and other infections. In addition, one’s body weight may be affected. This is because cortisol makes one to crave for fats and carbohydrates which are ingredients for weight gain. Cortisol increases weight gain around the abdominal area and may further increase one’s vulnerability to heart disease and diabetes. Lastly, the mental health is affected in the sense that being bombarded with stress hormones creates a constant state of anxiety and tension. This is a set up for depression, headaches or other problems over a period of time. Lack of sleep may also occur as a result of a heightened state of arousal (Bickerstaff 17).
The treatment of stress related illnesses such as post-traumatic disorder involves the introduction of stress reduction strategies. Such strategies include; avoiding stressors, changing one’s reaction to the stressors and relieving stress after the reaction to the stressors. Exercising, listening to music, aromatherapy and massage are also other known intervention of reducing stress after it has occurred. Psychotherapeutic approaches attempt to modify the patient’s reactions to stressors and may include an analysis of he patient’s individual patterns of response to stress (Cnafield, Hansen & Godwin 96).
In a nutshell, the definition of stress has been exclusively covered in the introduction of this document. Stress and stressors, the stress response system, the general adaptation syndrome, effects of stress to the body and treatment interventions for stress have also been discussed in detail. It is worth noting that adopting an attitude of gratitude, being altruistic, leading a purpose driven life and keeping a healthy sense of modesty about one’s goals and achievements, accrue as some of the strategies to leading a stress-free life.
Bickerstaff, Linda. Stress: coping in a changing world. New York: Rosen Publishing,
Brown, M. et al. Stress: neurobiology and neuroendocrinology. London: Informa
Canfield, Jack, Victor, Hansen, and Leslie, Godwin. Stress: chicken soup for the soul
Healthy Living Series. Florida: HCI, 2006.
Stanford, S., and Peter, Salmon. Stress: from synapse to syndrome. Missouri: Academic