Science, the study of the brain- neurosciences, continuing breakthroughs in technology, almost everyday is adding to our understanding of the body, the mind, diet-the food we eat and the effects of ever changing societies has on all of us. Change abounds, so I believe we need to continually ask, ‘what is science telling us about stress’?
How does stress harm both the body and the mind?
For many years now, medical doctors have been warning people of the dangers of poor stress management.
Many people still believe that stress doesn’t affect the body and it’s “just a state of mind”. What the majority of stress individuals do not know is that the body’s natural stress response is mainly a physiological event.
This means that the effects of stress have never been limited to our minds. When a person is stressed, his whole body experiences it, too. So the idea that stress is essentially harmless because it’s somehow limited to our imagination is actually a dangerous belief.
Why? Because a person who experiences chronic stress for many, many years has a much higher risk of making health conditions such as high blood pressure worse. So if you want to be physically healthier, you have to understand how stress actually affects the body.
How does stress come about?
The modern stress model gives us a simple and clear explanation of how physiological stress is roused:
1st Phase: Mental and Emotional Triggers are Engaged. A person perceives an event, situation, action or idea as negative and stressful.
2nd Phase: Psychological Stress Engaged. If a person does not arrest his emotions and negative thinking, the present situation causes psychological stress.
3rd Phase: Physiological Stress or “Fight or Flight” Response: Unmitigated psychological stress often leads to actual, physiological stress.
When the instinctual “fight or flight” response comes into play, a person feels an immediate surge of adrenaline, which temporarily increases a person’s speed, strength and stamina.
A person’s breathing rate and pulse rate also increase in preparation for sudden, intense physical activity (e.g. running away from a real, physical danger).
Stress normally abates when the perceived threat or danger finally passes. Thousands of years ago, the instinctual “fight or flight” response was extremely useful for our hunter-gatherer ancestors as they had to battle wild animals and each other in pre-modern society.
Scientists believe that the stress adaptation came about because our ancestors were almost always exposed to threatening or dangerous situations.
What are the signs that a person is experiencing stress?
Below are some common physical symptoms that a person is experiencing stress:
- Inexplicable exhaustion or fatigue
- Acute headaches that have a tendency to disrupt work or chores at home
- Shallow chest breathing
- Increased heart rate even when the person is not performing strenuous or challenging physical activities
- Minor muscular pain
- Facial tics
- Hand and arm tremors
- A general feeling of nervousness and anxiety
- Inexplicable perspiring of the hands and feet
- Turning to different substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and even recreational drugs
The list of symptoms doesn’t stop there. Here is a breakdown of the mental symptoms associated with moderate to extreme stress:
- Short temper
- Feeling angry all the time
- Inexplicable mood swings
- Feeling of isolation and helplessness
- Short term memory problems
- General decrease in work productivity
- Lowered sexual desire
- Distracted thinking
Why do people experience psychological stress?
The psychological signs of stress often manifest when a person has been under stress for a long period of time. These signs come about because the mind is trying to escape the stressful situation however it can.
This is one of the main reasons why stressed individuals are often less productive in the office.
Their minds are so sick of the prolonged stress response that their own thought patterns are preventing them from focusing on the things they have to do.
The same thing happens to university students who are overwhelmed with the nature and volume of work they have to complete to pass different course subjects.
How severe are stress-related symptoms in the general population?
In the United States alone, it is estimated that 90% of all physician visits are associated with symptoms related to chronic stress. It has also been estimated that on a monthly basis, 400 million people take medication to ease these symptoms.
Of course, we know now that medicating a stress-related symptom is a futile effort because you’re not addressing the main cause of the symptom – you’re just padding the symptom itself.
Now, it should be noted that the symptoms we discussed earlier may also be genuine signs of other health conditions (and not just stress). Consulting with your physician is still your best option if you experience symptoms such as racing heart rate or persistent headaches.