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Stress Part 1: What is stress and what effect does it have on our body? Your Step by Step Guide to Better Managing Stress

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So you may have heard that stress is positive, even necessary to get ahead in life. True. But this is where it is important to understand the difference between short-term and repeated (or chronic) stress. But first, let's understand how our body is hard-wired to respond to stress.

Survival Reflex

Our body has primitive design circuits that are beyond most people’s awareness. These circuits are activated when a threat is perceived (something that could do us harm) and kick in automatically.

Called the 'fight and flight response' it is controlled by our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system regulates aspects of our body’s functions that we don’t stop to think about, like our heart rate, breathing rate, digestion of food, pupil dilation, skin warmth and moisture levels. When the body perceives a threat, the autonomic nervous system kicks in releasing a chemical called adrenaline from our adrenal glands (they sit just above both of our kidneys). Released into the bloodstream, adrenaline activates the release of increased sugars into our bloodstream, providing an immediate boost in energy. It can also make you feel itchy, irritable, anxious and restless. While an armed assailant coming towards you is an obvious threat, there are plenty of not so obvious threats. They can be temperature changes, strong emotional experiences, hoax emails, unfamiliar circumstances, and environmental toxins. The thing is, in modern society there are many sources of perceived threat.

Stress is Individual & Modifiable

Now, what is stressful to one person may not be to another person. Going shopping for a birthday present is stressful for me, and loved by others. Likewise walking in the bush is a relaxing experience for some, but threatening for others. If what is stressful to one, is not to another, the obvious question is why? Well, with training and exposure, we develop coping or adaption mechanisms. Think about an airplane pilot. In addition to their skill of flying (training), they practice crash and malfunction scenarios in simulators. They are exposing their brains to situations and learning not to panic, to process available information and to make good decisions in stressful situations. They are developing adaptive strategies, so should they be in such a situation, they don’t fold under the resultant stress levels. This process is called the ‘general adaption syndrome’.

Alarm | Resistance | Fatigue

This adaptive process has three parts. The first is the alarm phase and triggered by a blinking red light, jammed accelerator pedal or oncoming rhino. Our brain registers the threat, signals to our master controlling gland, the pituitary, in our brain and it releases adrenocorticotrophic hormone (ACTH), which commences a cascade of events associated with the fight or flight response and includes the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Why? What do these chemical do to our bodies?

Well, ask yourself what did I feel last time I was frightened or really scared. Did you notice;

  • Heightened senses - sight, smell, or hearing
  • Burst of energy - shaking muscles, nervous energy
  • Change in breathing pattern or a pounding sensation in your chest or temple

Now you didn’t dial up any of these, they just arrived - care of the adrenaline released into your blood stream in response to the perceived threat. What is happening is that your body is preparing you to act. More oxygen and energy is being shunted to critical functioning areas like your large arm and leg muscles plus brain. This is occurring due to an increased breathing rate, increased heart rate, glucose being dumped from your liver and an opening of blood vessels to the brain and muscles allowing the oxygen and glucose to arrive in greater quantities. Conversely, blood supply to your digestive system is drastically reduced, as long term processing of food is not necessary for short-term survival.

This first alarm phase is short term, providing the body with the necessary energy and oxygen to optimize our survival actions. The second phase, termed resistance, is our body activating responses to combat threats with some longer-term strategy involved.

This second phase is also mediated by the adrenal glands and takes over as the short-term burst of energy and activity starts to wane. This phase is designed to fight stressors or threats, by providing longer-term energy sources (achieved via the breakdown of our protein molecules) and maintain elevated blood pressure through the retention of sodium in our blood stream. Breakdown of proteins restricts our bodies ability to repair and rebuild, causing breakdown of muscle tissue and ongoing stress to our immune system. If stressors remain, can you see some potential health problems?

Think diabetes (excess blood levels of glucose), high blood pressure (associated with heart and brain injuries) and cancer.
As the resistance phase continues and our body ongoingly feels the need to adapt to the stressors, our body moves into the final phase, fatigue/exhaustion. The systems and organs that have been contributing to the alarm and resistance phases will start to fail; heart, blood vessels, adrenal and immune systems.

Measuring Stress

While we each have different lives, a couple of researchers undertook to measure human responses to different lifestyle experiences- called the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale (For more detail search for, “The Social Readjustment Rating Scale", Thomas H. Holmes and Richard H. Rahe, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 11, Issue 2, August 1967, 213-218). Some of their results were obvious while others not so.

This 43 point scale weights different ‘life events’, and totaled together provides a snapshot of what stress a person is perhaps unknowingly attempting to deal with emotionally. The higher the total, the more likely you will get sick or injured.

1. Death of spouse (100)

2 Divorce (73)

3 Marital separation (65)

4 Jail term (63)

5 Death of close family member (63)

6 Personal injury or illness (53)

7 Marriage (50)

8 Fired at work (47)

9 Marital reconciliation (45

10 Retirement (45

11 Change in health of family member (44)             

12 Pregnancy (40)

13 Sex difficulties (39)

14 Gain of new family member (39)

15 Business readjustment (39)

16 Change in financial state (38)

17 Death of close friend (37)

18 Change to a different line of work (36)

19 Change in number of arguments with spouse (35)

20 A large mortgage or loan (31)

21 Foreclosure of mortgage or loan (30)

22 Change in responsibilities at work (29)

23 Son or daughter leaving home (29)

24 Trouble with in-laws (29)

25 Outstanding personal achievement (28)

26 Spouse begins or stops work (26)

27 Begin or end school/college (26)

28 Change in living conditions (25)

29 Revision of personal habits (24)

30 Trouble with boss (23)

31 Change in work hours or conditions (20)

32 Change in residence (20)

33 Change in school/college (20)

34 Change in recreation (19)

35 Change in church activities (19)

36 Change in social activities (18)

37 A moderate loan or mortgage (37)

38 Change in sleeping habits (16)

39 Change in number of family get-togethers (15)

40 Change in eating habits (15)

41 Vacation (13)

42 Christmas (12)

43 Minor violations of the law (11)

Ok so if you go to this far in the email, go and add up your score and see what your body is coping with. It is also worth thinking about over what time frame you have been dealing with these stress events.

Score                                                   Comment

11-150 You have only a low to moderate chance of becoming ill in the near future

150-299 You have a moderate to high chance of becoming ill in the near future

300-600 You have a high or very high risk of becoming ill in the near future

Going Forward

Each month we are going to explore ways that you can step by step examine your lifestyle and beliefs, with the aim of managing your stress more positively. We will be covering the following 4 key areas;

  1. Exercise
  2. Sleep
  3. Positive Approaches
  4. Nutrition

- Doug