People often talk about feeling stressed out. The combination of multiple work, family, and other commitments can start to feel like they’re crushing us.
So what exactly is stress? It occurs when strain is placed on the body in a way that disrupts its normal balance and functioning. The source of this stress can be internal or external, and it can be exerted psychologically or physiologically.
Part of the initial stress response comes from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, i.e. the fight or flight response. This involves the release of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine.
The HPA Axis
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is another pathway used by the brain to initiate the stress response. The hypothalamus, which acts as a control centre, can be triggered by the amygdala. The hypothalamus then sends a signal to the pituitary gland to release ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone), which then stimulates the adrenal glands to release the hormone cortisol.
In the short term, stress boosts energy levels and sharpens your senses. Stored sugar in the form of glycogen is released from the liver to fuel your reaction to the stressor. Your heart is pumping, and your airways expand to bring in maximum oxygen. Energy is diverted away from resting functions like digestion and reproductive system function. Stress hormones cause your memory to focus on stress-related input, leaving less capacity to encode non-stress-related information into memory.
Chronic stress can contribute to or worsen a number of health conditions, and can keep the HPA axis persistently hyperactivated. Changes in heart rate and blood pressure can occur, and there is an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. As the body becomes exhausted by the ongoing stress response, the immune system weakens.
Stress can affect the gastrointestinal system, and can be particularly problematic for people with irritable bowel system (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis).
Reacting to stress
There are four aspects of a stressor that result in the release of stress hormones: novelty, unpredictability, threat to the ego, and sense of control. The acronym for this is, suitably enough, NUTS.
One theory proposed two types of stress: eustress and distress. Eustress is adaptive and helps us to function better. Distress is persistent and does not respond to coping strategies. And what would the opposite of stress be? While relaxation might seem like the obvious answer, resilience is actually a more fitting answer.
What I find fascinating is what a great example this is of the interconnectedness between mind and body. For me, at least, stress feels very mental with a side of physical, but it’s actually the body that’s really kicking it into high gear. And lasting stress is kind of like taking an extended course of your body’s own natural form of prednisone.
The NUTS acronym is also interesting. The novelty and unpredictability seem obvious enough, but the threats to the ego and sense of control dig a little deeper. For me lack of control is huge. Not that I’m necessarily a controlling person, but having no control sends me cowering into my cave.
Chronic mental illness stops being novel pretty quickly, but it starts to develop a predictable unpredictability. Threat to the ego? Check. Loss of control? Double check.
How are you affected by stress?
- American Psychological Association
- Centre for Studies on Human Stress
- Harvard Health Publishing