What Is Stress? Understanding May Help Us Better Handle It

Overuse of the term may make you wonder: Exactly what is stress? And how might it be affecting me?

what is stress

What is stress? We know what it feels like; understanding the definition of stress—and the difference between chronic and acute stress—can only help us in dealing with it.

© Jeff Wasserman | Dreamstime

The answer to the question “What is stress?” comes in a clear definition from the National Institute of Mental Health: “Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Every type of demand or stressor—such as exercise, work, school, major life changes, or traumatic events—can be stressful.” Also commonly called anxiety, stress is associated with valid medical diagnoses, established treatments, and can cause life-threatening complications. Stress is real.

To go further in answering the “What is stress?” question, it’s important to differentiate between acute stress and chronic stress.

  • Acute stress is that immediate reaction to a car swerving toward you while you’re driving—is a good thing. It makes you react. It swiftly recognizes a threat and provides you with the tools to protect yourself. It’s that “adrenaline rush.”
  • Chronic stress is a state where your body constantly taps its natural defense mechanisms for protection. Eventually, stress drains the body’s protective resources. When that happens, your body is vulnerable.

Chronic Stress Signs

When your body reaches the point of chronic stress, you or your family and friends will probably notice you’re showing some typical stress symptoms.

Physically, a stress symptoms checklist includes:

  • Appetite changes
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Chest pain, rapid heart rate
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dry mouth
  • Fatigue
  • Gastro-intestinal problems
  • Headaches
  • Increased drinking, gambling, smoking
  • Loss of sexual desire
  • Muscle tension
  • Teeth grinding
  • Tinnitus
  • Trembling

Emotionally, a stress symptoms checklist includes:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Forgetfulness
  • Inability to focus
  • Irritability and impatience
  • Mood swings
  • Poor judgment

Stages of Stress

The American Institute of Stress—yes, there is such an organization—says Canadian Medical Hall of Fame endocrinologist Hans Selye (1907–1982) debunked the belief that all illnesses result from pathogens, pesky micro-organisms that cause disease. By recording the physical reactions of lab animals to varied obnoxious stimuli, Dr. Selye showed that regardless of the unpleasant stressor, the lab animals showed similar physical reactions and body changes.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Selye wrote more than 30 books and 1,500 papers about biological stress, dubbing it “general adaptive syndrome.” He identified three basic stages of stress:

  1. In the alarm stage, your body recognizes a problem, such as threatened lay-offs at your workplace. This stage is protective. In this stage, your body equips itself with energy to get out of the situation.

    The “fight or flight” hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are released. Your blood pressure rises, breathing may become more rapid, and heart rate increases. You feel your muscles become tense. Cortisol sends glucose into the blood stream for energy and puts your brain on alert for quick thinking. As the stress becomes chronic, your natural immune defenses weaken.

  2. In the resistance stage, your body attempts to adapt to the chronic stress. Although still on alert, it’s calmer. Adrenaline levels lessen, although cortisol continues to release glucose. Your blood pressure remains high and your stomach is queasy. Your body is tiring. Your body’s natural defenses weaken.

    Physically, you find it difficult to sleep. You’re anxious and irritable. Your normal thought processes are slow and foggy. You may eat or drink more than you should, further taxing your body. This is the time to seek help from a medical professional.

  3. When your body reaches the exhaustion stage, you’re drained. Your natural defense systems are depleted, including your immune system. You’re more vulnerable to disease. Your risk of cardiac disease soars. An example of someone at this stage is the weary caretaker who falls ill herself (or himself) after months or years of intense care for an ill loved one.

    Disease consequences of unresolved stress include:

    • Acne
    • Alopecia (hair loss)
    • Asthma
    • Autoimmune disorders
    • Brittle nails
    • Circulatory disorders
    • Eczema
    • Gastric ulcers
    • Gastro-intestinal illnesses
    • Generalized pain
    • Heart disease
    • Increased body temperature
    • Increased susceptibility to colds and viruses
    • Obesity
    • Slow-healing wounds

Stress Treatments

Obviously, ending the cause of stress in your life is the best way to combat it. However, that is rarely an option. If you think you’re under long-time stress, seek medical advice in finding ways to handle it before it destroys your body.

Sometimes, we may not even be aware our illness is due to chronic stress, so include it in your medical history when you see your physician.

For helpful reading on ways to overcome stress, see these University Health News posts:

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