Stress and Stress Response

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make you feel threatened or under some form of pressure.  In small doses, this pressure helps you to stay focused, energetic and alert, but when stress becomes overwhelming, it can be damaging your health and well-being.

When you perceive a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones in to your body including adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones arouse the body for emergency action.  Usually your heart starts pounding faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens and your senses become sharper.  These physical changes increase your strength, speed, reaction time and enhance your focus and in such way your body is preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand.  This is called the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.

Causes of Stress

Situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors.  We usually think of stressors as being negative events such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship, but stressors can be also positive events such as getting married, buying a house, going to college, or receiving a promotion.  What causes such pressure depends, at least in part, on each individual’s perception of their ability to handle the events.

Common external causes of stress:

  • Major life changes
  • Work
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Financial problems
  • Being too busy
  • Children and family

Common internal causes of stress:

  • Inability to accept uncertainty
  • Pessimism
  • Negative self-talk
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Perfectionism
  • Lack of assertiveness

Effects of Chronic Stress

The body doesn’t distinguish between physical and psychological threats, so when you’re stressed over a busy schedule, an argument with a friend, a traffic jam or a mountain of bills, your body reacts the same as if you were facing a life-or-death situation.  If you have a lot of responsibilities and worries, your emergency stress response may be “on” most of the time.

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious health problems.  Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in your body and it can raise blood pressure, suppress the immune system, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke, contribute to infertility and speed up the ageing process.  Long-term stress has also been linked with vulnerability towards experiencing anxiety and depression.

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