by Hanna Keith Santos Barrientos
Not everyone is affected similarly by the same stressor. Stress is both Stressor and Stress Reaction. I hear a lot of times in the clinic how an individual was doing fine until another person or an unfortunate circumstance contributed to their increased stress, anger, and pain. We cannot live a stress-free life. When we speak of stress, it is beneficial to consider two sides of it: the stressor – that which exerts stress – and the stress reaction – our response to the stressor. We may not be able to control what the outside may bring to us, but we can control our attitude and the response we generate. Required in this is the ability to regulate our nervous system to generate calm and reframe a stressor.
Negative and unprocessed stress can be harmful to our health. Unequivocally, it can impact our bodies. How we cope with it can be a second hit to our health and attract us to potentially harmful and addictive behaviors.
In the article, Hanna Keith Santos Barrios defines stress and specifically how our body responds to it. The hope is that the knowledge can equip the reader with a tool to consider the ways in which attach to a stressor and they can reframe it to provide the energy for transcending any hurdle.
Dr. Christopher M. Cirino, Founder of Your Health Forum
Table of Contents
What is stress?
Stress is a powerful force. It impacts everyone and can affect all aspects of our lives, even our health. Stress drives us to finish our tasks and sometimes propels us to work for our dreams. However, if left unchecked, stress can lead to opposite results. One way to avoid the negative impacts of stress is to understand how our body responds to it. Here’s an overview of everything you need to know about stress and its health consequences.
Stress is any situation or change in the environment which disturbs homeostasis. When under stress, your body may change physically, mentally, or emotionally as a response.
Note that stress is a normal part of everyday life. We cannot avoid it. Examples of stressful situations are pressure from work, exams, illnesses, and moving into a new place. Contrary to popular belief, stress can sometimes be used to our advantage. For instance, stress causes us to produce adrenaline, making us more alert and motivating us to finish our tasks.
However, when a person cannot handle stress properly, it may become chronic stress in the long term. This can severely affect your performance in everyday tasks and overall health.
How does your body respond to stress? A Closer Look
So what happens when you’re stressed? The brain responds to stress by sending signals to the body. Specifically, the amygdala, a brain region that processes emotions, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then communicates with other parts of the body through the autonomic nervous system (ANS), controlling involuntary functions of the body, such as breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure.
The ANS has two parts: the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the adrenal glands to pump alert hormones, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body when the stress has ended.
When the amygdala perceives danger or threat, the hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands, activating the sympathetic nervous system. The adrenal glands then initially respond by producing hormones called catecholamines into the bloodstream. Adrenaline (epinephrine) is the major catecholamine produced as a “fight or flight” response. This hormone increases the heart rate and blood pressure. It also causes the person to have sharper senses and experience deep and rapid breathing. When under acute stress, adrenaline also mobilizes blood sugar and fatty acids to supply energy to all body parts as preparation for action.
If the brain continues to perceive danger even after the initial surge of adrenaline, the hypothalamus also activates the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis through a series of hormonal signals. First, the hypothalamus secretes corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which triggers adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) excretion from the pituitary gland. The ACTH then activates the adrenal glands to produce cortisol, the predominant type of glucocorticoid in humans. The cortisol ensures the body stays alert and can deal with stressful situations.
The cortisol level decreases when the danger or threat passes, and the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, decreasing stress response.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Effects of Stress on Your Body
The complex communication of our nervous system and the release of hormones like cortisol and catecholamines are essential to retaining the equilibrium so our body can adapt to any internal or external environmental changes. However, prolonged stress can trigger numerous physiological complications.
Chronic stress has been linked to the development of various physical and mental health illnesses, including impaired immunity, metabolic disorders, and depression. This section will focus on how stress affects the different systems of the human body.
The stress response is generally mediated by the hormones released in the pituitary and adrenal gland. However, it’s crucial to know that stress is also tightly interconnected with other endocrine glands, including the thyroid, growth, and reproductive axes.
Regarding the reproductive axis, studies show that stress negatively impacts the reproductive function of both males and females. Prolonged or chronic stress can result in gonadal dysfunctions such as menstrual irregularities in women and infertility in men.
Long-term activation of the HPA axis in children can also suppress the section of growth hormones and inhibit other growth factors, leading to delayed growth and development.
The brain is the primary organ that determines if something is threatening and acts as the control center of the stress response. However, stress can cause an imbalance in the brain circuits, affecting our decision-making, mood, learning, and cognition. In fact, chronic stress can change the brain’s structure, leading to atrophy and a decrease in weight.
The constant release of stress hormones can also result in memory disorders due to atrophy of the hippocampus section of the brain. However, it’s important to note that stress does not always harm our memory. On the contrary, moderate stress can temporarily improve brain function, sharpening memory in some situations. For instance, students may remember exam topics after taking a written examination. But prolonged exposure to chronic stress damages the hippocampus, inhibiting its ability to retrieve memories.
Hormones released in the HPA axis also regulate the immune system and inflammatory responses. Unfortunately, these hormones can disrupt the production of proinflammatory cytokines, which play an essential role in wound healing and repair. This poses a significant challenge to patients who undergo surgery as it may lead to infection risk.
Moreover, people with depression and anxiety are more likely to have damaged immune systems, exposing them to infectious illnesses and autoimmune diseases. Chronic stress can also suppress lymphocytes and other defense mechanisms against tumors, leading to tumor expansion and cancer-related inflammation.
Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of mortality in the world, and one of its risk factors is stress. While increased heart rate and blood pressure are a normal part of the stress response, prolonged stress may promote increased vasoconstriction (narrowing of blood vessels), leading to high blood pressure and plaque formation. All of this can cause arrhythmia and myocardial infarction. Thus, stress management is recommended to protect the heart and reduce the risks of cardiac disease.
Have you ever felt that gut-wrenching experience in your stomach when you’re nervous, sad, or angry? That is because your brain has a deep and complex relationship with your gut.
Our gut contains neurons and microorganisms that communicate bi-directionally with the central nervous system. The gut-brain axis (GBA) links the emotional and cognitive areas of the brain to gastrointestinal (GI) functions and metabolism. This is why you may feel bloating or discomfort in your stomach when you’re stressed or anxious, and vice versa.
In addition, stress is associated with severe complications in the GI tract. This includes ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease.
How to Manage Stress?
Stress doesn’t only lead to diseases, but it can also make existing pain seem worse. The good news is that there are ways to deal with stress and counter its adverse effects. Here are simple strategies that will help you manage stress.
The term “relaxation response” is considered the counterpart of stress response and is often characterized by lower blood pressure, slower breathing, and reduced heart rate. To trigger this relaxation response, consider taking deep breathing exercises, visualizing tranquil scenes, going to calm places, and listening to peaceful music. Other practices like meditation, yoga, and tai chi can also help elicit a relaxed state of mind.
Studies have shown that relaxation response training improves the blood pressure of patients with hypertension and other heart conditions. Although relaxation techniques cannot replace medications, promising results from several suggest how this approach may be worth trying.
Exercise relieves mental stress by reducing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Even simple physical activities like brisk walking or gardening can lessen stress buildup and ease muscle tension.
Note that any type of exercise will help lessen your stress. If you haven’t been getting enough physical activities, start by simply stretching and walking (or biking) outside. The key here is to be consistent and exercise regularly. Once you have built stamina, you can perform moderate to high-intensity exercises like jogging and weight lifting. Remember to pick activities you enjoy and exercise at a pace you can maintain.
Mindfulness is a state of the brain that focuses on the present moment. Mindfulness technique is often combined with relaxation practices, such as yoga and deep breathing exercises. For example, mindful breathing lets you be aware of your movements and thoughts as you breathe in and out. Here is a Your Health Forum article on Mindfulness by Syndey Bright, MS.
This technique promotes awareness of yourself and the environment around you. It also helps remove distractions, improving your coping mechanism and overall mood.
Connect With Others
Stress is more difficult to manage without emotional support from friends, family, colleagues, and companions. Therefore, social support is a critical factor that will help you cope with stressful situations.
Remember that you don’t need a wide range of friends and colleagues to benefit from social support. A limited number of family and friends is enough if you feel their love and support. Some might find it difficult, but seeking help is the first step to processing your emotions, especially during chronic stress.
Your Mental Health Matters
Prolonged and severe stress often eats someone’s thoughts and feelings, leading to numerous physical and emotional illnesses. A mindfulness practice and ensuring self-care can create resilience to transcend any stressor or life obstacle. The difference can allow you to frame it as a steppingstone rather than an insurmountable obstacle.
Take the From the Surviving to Thriving Course and refer to other Your Health Forum talks on mindfulness.
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Seiler, A., Fagundes, C. P., & Christian, L. M. (2020). The impact of everyday stressors on the immune system and health. Stress challenges and immunity in space: From mechanisms to monitoring and preventive strategies, 71-92.
Ranabir, S., & Reetu, K. (2011). Stress and hormones. Indian Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, 15(1), 18.
Tsigos, C., Kyrou, I., Kassi, E., & Chrousos, G. P. (2020). Stress: endocrine physiology and pathophysiology. Endotext [Internet].
Categories: Brain Health, Featured Articles, neuroscience
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