Definition and Overview

Stress is a very common condition. You feel your heart racing, palms sweating, and stomach growling when you’re under stress, perhaps due to an upcoming job interview or a huge occasion such as a wedding. You also feel it when you’re overburdened with work, when you go through a crisis, or when you face your sources of fear like an angry dog or a plane flight.

Contrary to popular belief, however, stress is a biological response. Our body has been designed to detect and react to stressors. In fact, stress is good. It only becomes harmful when it is chronic.

Causes

What is stress and what causes it? Stress is our fight-or-flight response. Its impact in our lives can be traced back to our ancestors who were always faced with danger as they moved from one place to another or hunt for animals for food.

The hypothalamus in the brain is the one that is responsible for detecting a stressor or perceiving threat. When it determines something as a stressor, it sends signals to the adrenal glands, which are located near the kidneys, to release two types of hormones: cortisol and adrenaline.

Adrenaline increases your heart rate and your supply of energy while cortisol boosts glucose concentration, your body’s source of fuel, in the bloodstream for energy. This way, you can immediately react to the stressor or threat. For example, if you’re about to be attacked by a dog, these hormones allow you to run fast. Once the stressor is no longer present, these hormones should return to normal.

The problem is when you are under stress almost all the time. As a result, your body constantly produce adrenaline and cortisol.

Complications

What happens to the body when your stress response is always turned on?

We need to look at the effects of cortisol and chronic stress to answer this question. When the adrenal glands produce this hormone more than they should, it leads to different body responses. These include the following:

  • The glucose in the bloodstream shoots up as the liver is forced to produce it. This can eventually lead to metabolic syndromes and type 2 diabetes.
  • It makes you more vulnerable to infections and other types of diseases since the hormone suppresses what it thinks to be “non-essential” functions to survive like your immune system.
  • Your digestive system doesn’t function the way it should.
  • It slows down your metabolism
  • It makes you feel exhausted or sluggish.
  • It makes losing weight difficult.
  • It alters the way other hormones work including insulin and reproductive hormones.
  • Cholesterol and triglyceride levels go up, increasing your risk of cardiovascular diseases. According to the American Institute of Stress, stress:

  • Causes around 10% of reported strokes

  • Is responsible for 75% of doctors’ visits
  • Leads to more than 55% of diseases known to man
  • Costs us around $300 billion a year

Signs and Symptoms

Below are some of the most common signs and symptoms of chronic stress:

  • Tensed muscles especially around the neck, jaw, shoulders, and back
  • Constant feeling of tiredness
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Infertility
  • Low production of semen or egg cells
  • Elevated blood pressure, glucose, and cholesterol levels
  • Irregular and/or poor bowel movement
  • Palpitations or irregular heartbeat
  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Feeling of hunger
  • Sleep disorders such as insomnia
  • Difficulty in concentrating, brain fog
  • Difficulty in maintaining or losing weight
  • Diminished sexual drive
  • Vulnerability to infections
  • Bad skin and hair loss
  • Chest pains
  • Nausea, headaches, and dizziness

Treatment

There are many different kinds of treatments to relieve stress. Some of these deal directly with the effects of stress such as anxiety and depression. Drugs such as statins are known to reduce the level of cholesterol and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease or hypertension.

Many women, who suffer from infertility due to hormonal imbalance and stress, are often given Metformin. It brings down elevated glucose and decreases the risks of certain types of cancer and heart attack.

What many health experts suggest, however, is proper stress management:

  • Breathing exercises: These are simple, but very effective means to control your level of stress since they help calm and relax your body. They ease muscle tension and decrease the feelings of anxiety.

  • Counseling: Talking about the causes of your stress with a professional or even with a friend or family can already do wonders to your state of mind and body. Writing therapy is also a very popular way to deal and manage stressors.

  • Sleep: By getting as much as sleep as you can, you can help your body rest and relax. It also assists in suppressing appetite while increasing your immunity and promoting better weight loss.

When Should You See a Specialist?

Patients, who are struggling to deal with stress on their own, are encouraged to seek professional help from stress specialists or counselors who are trained to provide assistance in reducing stress symptoms. If stress management techniques mentioned above aren’t working for you, other treatments may be recommended. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, as well as hypnosis. Stress specialists will determine the best treatment based on your symptoms and their severity.

References:

  • http://www.stress.org/stress-is-killing-you/
  • http://www.psychologytoday.com/
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