The primary thing that you must understand about the effects of stress is that all stress is not bad. Healthy or good stress keeps you interested in life and motivates you to optimize your performance.
Good stress is known as eustress.
Eustress is better understood as the opposite of distress. It is important to note that your body cannot distinguish one from the other, both increase by successive addition but eustress has positive implications. It is healthy stress that pushes you to come first in a race or perform well under pressure at your job.
Stress is unavoidable in modern society. Modern lifestyles have made us all vulnerable. There is no way that you can avoid stress. Even if you live in solitude, stress will follow you there. However, it is perfectionists, pessimists and highly competitive individuals that experience increased levels of stress in any given event. Such people are also prone to invite stress.
Stress brings about changes in your body and health. These changes occur due to the release of brain chemicals and hormones and are meant to prepare the body to meet real or perceived emergencies. Some of the changes that you can experience are a faster heart beat, quick breathing, sweating and sweaty palms. Over time, unrelieved stress affects the immune system, heart, brain, muscles, stomach, reproductive organs, skin and lungs.
Stress also affects your thoughts, emotions and feelings. When you are under severe stress you may find that you cannot think properly. You may also find it difficult to think of solutions to small problems, something that leads to frustration, anger and a restless feeling all the time.
What you learn during your childhood from your family also dictates the manner in which stress affects you. Basically, the effects of stress depend upon your personality type as well. While some people may tackle problems in an easy going manner without any care, there are others that break down at the hint of stress. If you have a positive frame of mind and treat stressful events as challenges, stress is less likely to have a negative effect on you.
The type of stress also makes a great difference how stress affects you. Acute or short term stress is the body’s immediate response to a stressor. The stress level is also determined by the severity and the speed with which you are able to come to terms with a changed situation. Normally, the body recovers quickly from acute stress but recurrent episodes of small amounts of stress can affect your immune system and increase risk of other serious illnesses.
Chronic stress occurs mostly due to events or situations that have long term repercussions. A difficult job, for example, may be a source of constant stress. Chronic stress is normally termed as a “silent killer” and if you are already suffering from an illness, chronic stress can worsen it.
Effect on Body and Health
Stress is part of our daily life. Life would be very boring indeed without a little bit of stress. It is this stress only that motivates us, makes us want to win races and excel in academics. However, when stress gets excessive or is not handled properly, it can cause a variety of illnesses. Stress can even be fatal if we allow it to control us rather than trying to control stress and stressful situations.
Stress is not simply something that makes you worry. It can occur even due to things and events that make you happy. In fact, many people are burdened with stress without even realizing that it exists. Stress can be anything that brings about a change in your routine life and your health. It is also about imaginary changes that you think might happen in future. Stress can therefore be real, perceived, self-created, positive or negative.
Our bodies have evolved in a way that they experience and react to stress in a specific manner. Only if we choose to consider stress as a challenge and try and overcome the situation positively can stress be resolved effectively.
Constant stress, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on your body and overall health. It triggers changes in the brain and brings about a chemical imbalance. When your body is relaxed and in its normal un-agitated state, it produces enough chemicals that keep you calm. Constant stress disturbs the level of these chemicals and important nerve centers are hard-pressed. This is the negative reaction of stress and known as distress.
Distress can cause psychological suffering as well as extreme physical pain. It can leave you feeling terrible. It can overwhelm the mind and affect your overall health. It can lead to headaches, high blood pressures, diarrhea, constipation and upset stomach, insomnia and chest pain. It can also aggravate the symptoms of an existing disease.
Many people try to relieve stress by using alcohol, tobacco or drugs. This negative sublimation is something that can be extremely harmful and cause irreversible damage to you. Alcoholic beverages, smoking and drugs do not relieve stress. In fact they continue to keep the body in the agitated state of stress and tension. They do not bring the body back to a relaxed state and can in fact cause more problems.
There are many times that visits to the doctor result from aches, pains and allergies that are actually caused by psychological issues like stress. Untreated stress may be the underlying causes for tension headaches, asthma, arthritis, skin diseases, hypertension and cardiac problems. No wonder that stress is often referred to as a silent killer.
If you are anxious or stressed out or have a tendency to look at the negative aspects of every situation, you need to do something to manage stress. Eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly and think positive. Always remember that most of the time adverse situations have some hidden positive potential.
Effect on Heart
From a purely scientific perspective, the affect of mental stress on heart disease is not fully known. However, stress can interfere with the heart’s activities when it sets off the sympathetic nervous system, a branch of the autonomic nervous system that reduces digestive secretions, speeds the heart and contracts blood vessels.
Stress does affect our heart. But the manner in which is affects is not simple. Medical science has yet to establish whether stress alone can cause a heart disorder or whether other problems associated with stress increase the risk of a heart disease. One thing that is known for sure is that chronic stress affects your mind, body and heart and the harm that it can cause is enough to warrant as much attention as other risk factors like high blood pressure, unhealthy lifestyles and obesity.
To understand then manner in which stress affects the heart, it is important to understand what stress is. Stress is a normal response of the body to a threat – real or perceived. In times of stress, signals travel from your brain, through the spinal cord to various other organs in the body where specific hormones are produced. Adrenaline and cortisol are then released. Adrenaline stimulates the autonomic nervous system. Cortisol, commonly called the stress hormone, is active in carbohydrate and protein metabolism. These flow into your nervous and circulatory systems and affect numerous body organs, including the heart to bring about changes that are actually meant to help you to fight or flee from danger. Specific reactions that are triggered in the heart are:
- Increase in heart rate
- Increase in blood pressure
- Release of fats into the bloodstream for use as energy
These physiological changes should not last for a long time since the stress response is meant for meeting emergencies. The way life has changed over centuries has resulted in a position of continuous emotional stress, most of it perceived rather than real. Chronic stress can affect your heart and take a heavy toll on your cardiovascular system in various ways.
- Continuous high heart rate can create problems with heart muscle
- The heart is overloaded when it has to pump in more blood. A prolonged state of hypertension increases risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Over time, release of fats into the bloodstream can potentially thicken the arteries, which can lead to coronary artery disease or heart attack.
- Continued release of cortisol is associated with fat deposits, most often in the abdomen. The resultant ‘apple shape’ is a distinguishing symbol of metabolic syndrome, which increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Effect on the Immune System
The immune system in our body is a combination of biological processes that protects us against disease. It identifies disease causing pathogens ranging from viruses, bacteria, parasitic worms to tumor cells. One of its many functions is to distinguish harmful agents from the other healthy body cells and tissues so that it can function properly. If the immune system is weak we get more susceptible to disease and are sometimes unable to decipher properly between healthy cells and those pathogens causing disease. Stress is one of the factors that adversely affect this complex defense mechanism in your body.
Stress affects the immune system in more than one ways and not all of them are negative. Short term stressors actually push the immune system to prepare the body for protecting itself from minor threats like insect bites, skin abrasions and punctures. Chronic stress, on the other hand, suppresses the immune system.
If stress lasts for a longer period, the physical and psychological changes that occur start impacting the body negatively, first at the cellular level and eventually the broader immune level.
- Chronic stress numbs the immune system’s responses to infections and in some cases even vitiates the body’s response to immunization. The white blood cells that are an important part of the body’s defense system are generally found to be lower among those suffering from chronic stress. This makes the body more vulnerable to common ailments like the common cold and flu.
- Cytokines are protein molecules secreted by cells of the immune system that serve to regulate the immune system. There is evidence that suggests that chronic stress triggers over production of cytokines, which weakens your body’s defense mechanism.
- The immune system of the elderly and those already suffering from a disease is more vulnerable to changes brought about by stress.
- Techniques like meditation, relaxation techniques, yoga and exercise that are commonly recommended for managing stress have a positive affect on the immune system. A positive frame of mind and a positive attitude also plays a vital role and is correlated with a better ability to fight disease. This is empirically proven by the observation that patients who exhibit fear before surgery are known to take longer time in healing afterwards.
- While there is no evidence to prove the role that stress plays in tumor growth, there is a belief that lack of control over existent stress (and not stress per se) has a negative impact on the ability of the immune system to control tumor growth. Here again, stress management techniques play an important role.
Effect on Brain
Many psychological studies reveal that a significant number of medical consultations occur due to psychological problems and a fair number of them are a result of acute or chronic stress.
Stress is a normal reaction of our body. It is a process that is activated when we perceive a threat and involves an appraisal and attempt to cope with the physical, emotional and psychological situation.
It is an excellent mechanism that evolved in mammals years ago. The evolution helped man to increase the chances of survival in life threatening situations. The reaction of the body in such emergency situations is to cease optimal functioning of all non-essential body systems. The entire attention is diverted to the muscles and the brain so that the emergency situation can be tackled effectively.
Encounters with muggers in a dark alley, a car accident about to happen or loss of a loved one are universal examples that elicit a stress response.
Basically, there are three organs that are involved during a stress response. One is located inside the brain (the hypothalamus), the second at the base of the brain (pituitary gland) and the third near your kidneys (adrenal glands). All three work in tandem and are involved in a complex system known as hypothalamo-pituitray-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Once your brain has determined that danger exists, it signals the adrenal glands through nerve signals that are sent through the spinal cord to release adrenaline. Once the adrenaline is released, it stimulates autonomic nerve action and among other things, elevates blood pressure, increases heart rate and increases blood pressure.
At the same time, the hypothalamus in the brain sends signals to the pituitary gland, the master gland of the endocrine system, to release factors that travel through the blood and stimulate the adrenal glands to release cortisol, commonly known as the stress hormone. Cortisol is important for keeping blood sugar and blood pressure up so that we are able to fight or flee danger.
The changes that occur in the brain and body during a stress reaction are normal and harmless as long as the threat lasts for a short period of time and the body reverts to its normal state. However, the high alert state can be extremely harmful if it continues for a long period of time. High cortisol levels in the blood can weaken the immune system and kill brain cells. Researchers have found that prolonged stress can actually shrink certain areas of the brain, especially the hippocampus area, which plays an important role in long term memory.
Even if you wanted to, it is impossible to avoid stress in today’s fast paced life. Another aspect of stress is that the more you try to avoid it, the more it bounces back with renewed severity. The stark reality of modern life is that regardless of whether you are a teenager or an adult, stress is so integral to life that while you can manage stress you cannot avoid it totally.
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The human body developed a stress response very early in evolution so as to be better prepared to meet physical threats from wild animals. Modern life has eliminated the threat from wild animals but thrown up a completely new set of psychological stressors. The stress response, however, has stayed the same.
Stress manifests as symptoms at every stage, some physical and others psychological. As far as psychological effects of stress are concerned; untreated stress can change the entire personality of an individual.
Psychological effects of stress are mostly the result of faulty perception and a refusal to accept that life situations cannot always be favorable. Adverse life situations cannot be avoided and they must occur one at some time or another. If you have a negative approach to life then it can lead to chronic stress. Chronic stress leads to resistance and most of it is focused on defending your ego rather than managing stress.
A piece of information or a problem has some consequences for you and you keep on thinking about it. Gradually, you change it to stress by thinking about possible negative impact that it may have upon you. Over time, stress engulfs your mind and you cannot think off anything other than the web of negativity that you created around you.
The story does not end here. You start losing interest in daily activities because of stress. You cannot concentrate because your entire thinking process is taken over by the problem that is worrying you. Your ability to discriminate between what is good and bad is hampered and so is your ability to take right decisions. Psychological effects of stress can eventually inhibit your cognitive ability and also your ability to rationalize. Once that is lost, life is in disarray and you lose control over it.
Psychological effects of stress vary from person to person. Here again it is your perception that matters. If you have a positive frame of mind, you will consider adverse life situations as challenges, look for the positive aspects and use them to advance further in life.
Effect of Stress at Work
Modern lifestyle is full of stress. You have not only to cope with challenges at work but also with stress that you take along with you to work. What adds to the problem is that in these difficult times when economy is bad, stress at home and workplace are on the rise.
Workplace stress grows in times of economic crisis. It is not only workers but also the managers and employers who have to come to terms with the changes that they see around them. While employers worry about how to cut budgets, employees are more worried about increased pressures to meet targets to ensure job safety.
Workplace stress can be equally difficult during a better economic condition. It can be caused by extreme pressure to perform beyond your capability or excessive competition and back biting at work. Sometimes high levels of workplace stress are actually caused by the high expectations that one sets from himself/herself.
It is important that you understand the various effects of workplace stress in order to combat the situation effectively. Workplace stress can result in physical, psychological, behavioral and emotional changes that can ultimately result in a poor performance, job loss, monetary issues and other health related issues as well.
Workplace stress can leave you overwhelmed. When you are overcome with a feeling of an impending disaster that seems to be looming large over you, you feel anxious, irritable or depressed. There is a sudden feeling of apathy and lack of enthusiasm and you suddenly loose interest in your work that you may have enjoyed earlier. You get fatigued more quickly and you have trouble in concentrating, which eventually shows on your performance. In fact, it seems as if you no longer have control over your abilities.
In addition, the anxiety and the accompanying stress lead to muscle tension, tension headaches, stomach problems and loss of interest in social activities. Since there is a great possibility that you bring your workplace problems home, you may find a loss in sex drive. Suddenly, the neighborhood pub seems to be the only place where you can drown your worries in alcohol.
If stress is interfering with your performance at workplace, wake up and take care of yourself. It is upon you to manage your life and take control of the situation. Try to assess what is causing the stress. This can sometimes be a very minor issue that you may have perceived as larger than what it really is and you may be able to handle on your own easily if you think it through with a clear head.
Reducing workplace stress may be as easy as joining a gym or doing some exercises at home. Exercising is a great anti-stress remedy that lifts your mood, keeps you alert, helps to focus and relaxes your mind and body. Make some more positive changes like organizing the way you work and take one thing at a time. You will find that it is not very difficult to manage workplace stress.