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What is stress?

What happens to our body when we are under pressure?

Stress is the body's natural, physiological response to any situation that is difficult or uncomfortable, or one that puts pressure on us. It can affect us mentally and physically. Stress advisor Marianna Kilburn explains what the different kinds of stress are.

An introduction to stress

When we speak of stress, we usually refer to stress on the mind or psychological stress, rather than that on the body (physical stress).

Stress may be defined as the mental state when we unable to cope comfortably with events facing us. These can occur suddenly and be short-lived (acute stress) or be around us for long periods of time (chronic stress).

This results in the release of specific chemicals or hormones into our bloodstream, namely adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, which trigger a stress response in the body.

Stress itself is not considered to be an illness but can lead to feelings of anxiety, demotivation or low mood and may even lead to depression. In addition, it can have a negative impact on the physical health of the body.

The stress response

In our cavemen days, a stressful situation would be coming across an animal such as a bear or a mammoth. It would either kill us, or we would kill it for food.

When faced with this situation, our bodies responded by preparing us to fight. Nowadays, the equivalent of a woolly mammoth includes deadlines, money worries and relationship problems; however, our bodies react in the same way.

It was a scientist known as Walter Cannon who, in 1932, first described the stress response involving the hormones, cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. What he found was that when a person feels in danger or threatened, the nervous system quickly reacts by releasing stress hormones into the bloodstream.

Stress hormones are there to aid what is termed the ‘fight or flight’ response. They have the following effects on the body:

  • Increases heart rate and blood pressure. This helps to deliver more oxygen and blood sugar to muscles in preparation for fighting or running. This is what causes our heart to pound
  • Increases sweat production to cool our muscles ensuring they continue to work efficiently. This leads to the common experience of sweating when under pressure
  • Diversion of blood away from the skin to deeper inside the body in an effort to reduce blood loss if there is damage to the skin. This is what causes us to feel shivery or ‘tingly’ when under stress
  • Focus our minds, directing our full attention to the perceived threat by blocking other thoughts around us
  • Faster breathing brings more oxygen into the body – this is what is needed for more glucose to be converted into energy
  • Activates the immune system to prepare for action to fight infection and heal wounds
  • Releases pain relieving chemicals to dull our sense of pain
  • Slowing or turning down of non-essential body functions, such as the digestive system.

Positive stress

We generally consider stress to be negative and this is because stress has a detrimental effect on our life. However, we also experience positive stress (eg. an emotion such as excitement on a roller coaster) and do not tend to complain about this type of stress. However, our body triggers the same physical responses to positive stress as it would negative ones.

Good stress can be:

  • The desire to win a game
  • The thought of something exciting such as meeting up with someone you haven’t seen for a while
  • Even a good enjoyable argument can be stressful in a positive way.

It is well known that sports people need to be under stress to perform well. This is because your body is in the best condition for performance. How they handle stress and how they behave under pressure often determines whether they will win or not. This is considered to be positive stress.

Negative stress

Negative stress is the type we tend to dwell upon. It is the one which makes us feel insecure, inadequate and incapable. We may experience it when we face situations which are overwhelming or difficult for us.

This includes anything which challenges or threatens our normal state of living, including our mental and physical wellbeing.

Many things can trigger a stress response. Among the most common today are:

  • Family worries or illness
  • Work pressures
  • Financial concerns

Often a combination of factors means that a situation you would generally be able to cope with becomes blown out of proportion, leading to stress and anxiety.

Acute and chronic stress

Acute stress is short term stress, and happens when you get a fright, or which lasts only for a day or two until a deadline, for example, has been reached.

Chronic stress is long-term stress and is the type of stress which never seems to ease, as just as one problem is out of the way, another takes its place.

Our bodies are able to cope well with acute stress – this helped us overcome those woolly mammoths a long time ago. However, chronic stress leads to all sorts of complications with our health, such as high blood pressure, circulatory problems and even strokes and heart attacks.

It has been shown that stress can contribute to 85% of serious illness. If you are suffering from chronic stress, then it is important to seek medical attention in order to tackle the problems you are facing, allowing you to enjoy a healthier, more relaxed lifestyle.

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