Headaches, stomach pains, depression & nausea can all be signs of stress. What is stress and why does it do this to our bodies?
The stress response is the body’s ability to respond to stressful situations, developed through evolution in conditions very different from those under which we live today.
During periods of stress the adrenal glands in our kidneys secrete certain stress hormones, mainly adrenaline. The physiological effects of this are vast and are required for the fright, fight, flight response (Cannon & de la Paz, 1911). The hormones channel the blood where it is most needed so our bodies can adapt and respond to life threatening situations, including an elevation in blood pressure, heart rate, respiration & sympathetic nervous system stimulation. The danger is over and all systems resume back to normal. Well, that’s the theory.
Humans have very complicated brains, due to an extremely sophisticated central nervous system. During stressful periods in our lives we have the same physiological responses as other animals, only we are not very good at switching off the stress response. The stress-heads amongst us will therefore have a continuous stream of adrenaline release, amongst other stress-response hormones. This means that our inflammatory and immune system responses are working overtime. We deal with the problem by adapting to these stressors and learning to live alongside them, in order to inhibit the inflammatory and immune responses. We may, for example, experience more colds, more muscle tears or poor wound healing.
Long term, the body may not be able to deal with the stressor. The ability to cope cannot keep up with the demands made and the body will become exhausted or damaged. These are referred to as ‘the diseases of adaptation’ (Selye, 1976) and can include hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.
I would like, in the next blog, to discuss ways in which we can deal with stress. Our lives are unlikely to get less busy and stressful, so I shall be exploring ways of living with it and changing our mindset over stress.