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What is stress?

Updated: Oct 1, 2019

What causes stress

So what exactly is Stress?

To understand exactly what stress is and more importantly what causes it, a good place to start is in the Oxford English Dictionary. Stress is defined as “ A state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances.”

For me, the key words here are adverse or demanding. But how adverse or demanding do things need to get in order for us to feel stressed?

According to Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper in their book How to deal with Stress, there is such a thing as good stress. They say that a certain level of stress is necessary in our daily lives to encourage us to get to work on time, meet deadlines, be creative and alert and generally work at our optimum. Indeed if we were living totally stress-free lives then we might become bored, apathetic and depressed.

Think about it the only time you see a flat line on a heart monitor is when the patient is no longer alive!. So when does it tip over from good stress to bad adverse and demanding stress, well apparently there is no easy answer, no nice measurement just a vague notion that stress varies from person to person and that one person’s pressure is another person’s stress. However, if you were to create a graph with one axis as performance and the other as stress level the question would be how much stress could you personally endure before your ability to cope started to diminish and you started to exhibit signs of stress.

For me, this brings into focus the need for greater self-awareness and to start the practice of checking in with yourself and thinking where am I on this graph? Am I coping well with life or are things starting to slide?

What happens in the body when stress shows up?

I find it fascinating that a thought or our response to an event can create visible changes in our body. So when people generalise and say things like “stress it’s all just in your head” they are not quite correct. Stress may start as a thought in our head but quickly moves to being a series of reactions in our body.

Let’s look at that. According to Stephen Palmer and Cary Cooper. When a person perceives something is threatening them and they feel like the demand has exceeded their ability to cope, then messages are carried along neurones from the cerebral cortex (the place where the thought process occurs in the brain) and the limbic system to the hypothalamus which is located in the brain. This is where things start to heat up as the anterior hypothalamus produces sympathetic arousal of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). For clarity the ANS is an automatic system that controls the heart, lungs, blood vessels, stomach and glands. Because of the ANS our heartbeat and breathing just happen without conscious effort.

Here is the technical bit! The ANS has two different systems the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system helps with relaxation and the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for action. In a stressful situation the sympathetic nervous system increases the body’s defences, and prepares the body in a primeval way to either fight or flight. Once the flight or fight stress response has been triggered, a sequence of physiological complex activities start to occur within the body.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline are released into the blood supply which prepares the body to fight or flight. Heart rate and metabolic rate increases, the pituitary activates which has the effect of activating the adrenal gland and the adrenal cortex, this in turn creates cortisol and can lead to high blood pressure as the adrenal cortex releases aldosterone. More complex sequences occur and the pituitary releases a thyroid- stimulating hormone which stimulates the thyroid gland which is located in the neck. to secrete thyroxin. The effect of increasing thyroxin is to increase the metabolic rate, the blood sugar levels, the respiration, the heart rate, the blood pressure and the intestinal mobility.

So what you might say. Well when you needed to fight a tiger or run from your enemy this response was helpful. However in modern day the results according to the experts are a complex sequence of events which create a response in the body.

These changes can manifest in disruptions in behaviour such as sleep disturbance or insomnia, changes in appetite, aggression or irritability and increases in compulsive behaviour. Or changes in psychological response, such as feeling anxiety, depression, anger, having a poor self-image, mood swings or at the very top of the scale experiencing images of suicide and death. Changes on a physical level can manifest as nausea, feeling faint, dry mouthed, feeling stomach pains, headaches and palpitations.

Do you recognise the signs?

That is a long list of responses, so it would make sense if you are recognising any of these signs to get ahead of this list and start to think about managing your stress now before it gets out of control.

If you think you need help to break the stress cycle let's talk you can contact me here.

I hope you enjoyed reading my article, please leave your comments below or share with your friends.


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