The Importance and Purpose of Stress
You hear a lot about the bad things associated with stress these days. Too much stress causes a plethora of problems that are bad for both our mind and our body. It's largely a symptom of the world we live in, with all of its pressures. Of course, stress is a natural, physiological response that is important, in spite of the issues that it causes when we experience stress in abundance.
Perhaps the biggest issue with stress isn't necessarily the source of stress, but rather the way that you respond to that stress. Let's take the remainder of this article to discuss stress in more detail—why we experience it, how it benefits us, and how it can harm us.
Stress is complex. It's not only a psychological feeling, it represents the physiological way that our bodies respond to stressors. Although physical and psychological stress may seem very different on the outside, our bodies react to them in the same way.
What is Stress?
Stress is a feeling that you get when you consciously or subconsciously feel that you are unable to meet obligations and expectations. It's a feeling that you get when something inside of you tells you that you can't do something.
What Are the Different Kinds of Stress?
There are different forms of stress. Some people experience chronic stress, meaning that they are plagued by such feelings that leave them drained. Sometimes, stress is episodic, meaning that it comes and goes as a result of certain psychological, social, or physiological cues. Acute stress is also a problem that some people experience. Acute stress is when things that elicit a stress response have a larger effect on an individual than they should.
Everyone has their own stress profile, and have their own reasons why they get stressed. Stress can be categorized into two forms: Extrinsic and Intrinsic stress. Extrinsic stress is the result of factors outside of yourself, like when you have a big project or presentation due at work, or you're flirting with someone that you're attracted to. Intrinsic stress is stress that is the result of things going on inside of your own head. Perhaps you've built walls inside yourself that you have to overcome to be social, for example. Or maybe you find yourself questioning your self-worth. These are forms of intrinsic stress.
Your feelings of stress actually represent physiological changes that are going on inside your body in an attempt to help you deal with stressors. These physiological changes are associated with what is known as the fight-or-flight response. When you feel stress, your sympathetic nervous system activates. The sympathetic nervous system gets your body ready to deal with immediate issues, whether you are risking life and limb, or feel anxiety about an upcoming exam.
When you feel stressed, your body responds in a system-wide manner. When stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, your body experiences a veritable flood of Hormone and Neurological response, all designed to help you overcome that stress.
What Are the Phases of Stress Response?
Stress response can be divided into three different phases:
Stage One: Alarm
The first response to stress is alarm. Alarm represents the recognition of a perceived threat, which initially activates the sympathetic nervous system response. During this phase of stress response, the brain sends signals to systems all throughout the body to go on high-alert. This response is mediated by the Hypothalamus, which is considered the “control center” of the human brain. An important part of the alarm phase is the activation of the adrenal glands, which produce cortisol and other stress hormones.
As these signals circulate through the body, they encourage a wide variety of changes. For example, stress primes your circulatory system to send oxygen to the skeletal muscles and brain, and it speeds up the lungs and heart. At the same time, your body's baseline functions, such as digestion, slow down. This is your body's way of getting you out of a threatening situation, temporarily sacrificing your normal function to get you out of harm's way, or stir you to take action. Your body also sends energy in the form of glucose to these organs, getting you ready to put it all on the line, if necessary.
The issue with the way that the body prepares for stress, is that there isn't really a meaningful mechanism for the brain to differentiate between different forms of stress, whether that stress is menial or life threatening, minor or major. Stress developed as an evolutionary response, and it is present in all complex animals. The fact that physical and emotional stress are handled in the exact same way by the body is a hold-over from our ancestors. The body's response to psychological stress in the modern world, therefore, can be overkill, to say the least. This is why many people feel overwhelmed by stress, and we've all likely felt this way at some point or another.
Stage Two: Resistance
The second phase of stress is resistance. During this phase, your body has prepared itself for response, giving you the tools to respond to stress. Your brain has altered your physiological priorities for action. During the resistance phase, the Hypothalamus initiates another Hormone Cascade designed to amplify and enhance your response to stress further. During this period, the Hypothalamus secretes three important hormones, known as Thyrotrophic-Releasing Hormone, Growth Hormone-Releasing Hormone, and Corticotrophin-Releasing Hormone.
This phase of stress response is designed to keep your body adapted to ongoing stress. This second phase heightens the body's preparedness in a variety of ways, all designed to protect you in a high-pressure situation. For example, the body starts catabolizing proteins and fatty acids into glucose. This provides energy to your muscles, even if you don't have carbohydrate energy immediately available. Also during the resistance phase, the body increases salt and water retention to protect you in case you start bleeding or are seriously hurt.
Another aspect of stress response is that the brain suppresses sensations of pain so that one can make it through a stressful situation alive and in one piece. This is why, for example, if you get in a fight or a car crash, you will likely underestimate your pain levels until after the damage is done.
Again, these changes are designed to keep us alive and to help us win fights or run away, but we also respond with stress in myriad of situations which are far more benign.
Stage Three: Exhaustive
The third phase of stress is exhaustive. This is the body's response to long bouts of stress or chronic stress, which are different than a stressor which can be dealt with quickly. It is this form of stress which can be most detrimental to health and wellness, because the body functions optimally when it only activates sympathetic response when needed, rather than leaving stress “on” all the time.
Exhaustive Stress is the result of extended periods of excessively high pressure and alertness which inhibit health and wellness. Exhaustive Stress will eventually lead to a condition known as Adrenal Fatigue, in which the body is no longer able to produce enough stress hormones, and this also drains the body of the resources necessary to produce other hormones such as HGH and Testosterone which are associated with healthy and optimal function.
Exhaustive Stress can be divided into two categories, although the body will respond in the same manner. Some people experience this form of stress for an explicit reason. For example, military personnel can experience Exhaustive Stress as a result of long-term high-stakes situations which necessitate peak performance.
The second category belongs to ordinary people that experience exhaustive levels of stress as a result of their body's chronic over-response to everyday stressors or psychological stress. For example, people with PTSD or high levels of anxiety can be so on edge that their bodies spend an overwhelming amount of time in a stress phase, putting undue pressure on the body. Also, many people experience exhaustive stress as a result of issues such as chronic pain. Stress is not only psychological, but physical, and the body responds to physical pain with a sympathetic stress response.
Exhaustive Stress weakens the immune system, as stress response is designed to protect one against immediate threats. The catabolic processes which create energy from protein also eat away at muscle tissue, depleting strength and reducing energy levels over time. The body also loses its ability to produce hormones effectively, which can actually leave you more susceptible to pain over time. Exhaustive stress is dangerous and significantly increases mortality risk from a variety of sources if not dealt with appropriately.
Healthy Stress Associated with Enhanced Performance
Although too much stress is obviously very bad, experiencing just enough stress can be extremely beneficial, which explains why human beings still experience stress. Stress is designed to be a temporary response to “get you into the game.” It gets your body and mind ready to take action. If you don't experience any stress, you aren't ready to do what you need to do, but if you have too much stress, you lose everything beneficial about stress and only experience the negative aspects of stress.
Of course, psychological stress is more multifaceted than we've described in this article, but this provides a rough sketch of how stress “works.” There are many different types of stressors, and different people obviously get stressed about different things. For example, some people experience stress as a result of difficult tasks, where as others experience stress as a result of simpler, more repetitive tasks. Some people experience existential anxiety, whereas others experience excess stress as a result of social interactions.
Stress is Not Always Tangible
As a result of both the complexities of modern life, and the complexities of the human mind, not all stress is the result of events in our day-to-day lives. Unlike most animals, we have an internal dialog, and internal hopes and dreams, and our stress can actually be the result of things going on inside of our own head rather than our response to the world around us and our preconditions. This is one of the reasons why human beings are so susceptible to stress—our brains and our culture have evolved in a way that can potentially cause our natural, evolutionary response to stress to work against us.
How to Deal With Stress
Part of learning to deal with stress is learning about what causes it, and how our bodies and minds respond to stress as a single unit. Many patients can learn to deal with stress through cognitive behavioral therapy. Others benefit from physical activities that relieve stress such as exercise or yoga. Because the body and mind both respond to physiological stress response, taking steps to relax the body can relax the mind. The reverse is also true, which is why meditation and cognitive therapy can also relieve symptoms of physical stress.
Hormone Imbalance also both contributes to stress, and is a side effect of Adrenal Fatigue and Exhaustive Stress (which, in many ways, are one in the same). Excess physical and psychological stress cause the body to favor hormones which benefit the individual immediately, while limiting the body's ability to produce hormones associated with homeostasis and balance, such as Growth Hormone and Testosterone. Long term, extreme stress drains the body's ability to effectively produce all of these hormones, leaving the patient in an even more dire state.
Manage Stress to Improve Health and Wellness
Controlling stress is one of the key factors of living a healthy life. If you are having trouble with stress, and your personal efforts aren't enough, it would benefit you greatly to visit a life coach, psychologist, or even a fitness, nutrition, or wellness specialist. There's no reason to let yourself be eaten alive by stress, when there are things you can do and people you can talk to that can help you. Learn to master your stress for a happier and healthier life!