Stress.

Stress is one of the worst feelings ever. I generally cope quite well with stress. I’ve never been the type of person to let work get on top of me but in the past few months I have been more stressed than i’ve ever been before. Forget A-levels, organising a week packed with fundraising events and co-ordinating a stupid number of committees to make sure said events go off without a hitch, on top of school work and a job, has been a challenge like no other.

For the past few weeks i’ve been unable to sleep at night, i’ve felt tight chested, had killer headaches, panic attacks, fainting and i’ve lost my appetite. Stress can have a serious impact on your quality of life, especially if it’s over a long period of time. I’m going back to my AS Psychology now to explain why stress can have this huge impact on us.

Stress is a biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with.- Simply Psychology

Firstly, we decide whether or not a situation is stressful. This decision is made based on the things we see and hear- sensory input- and also on stored memories of what has happened in the past in similar situations. If a situation is perceived to be stressful, the hypothalamus in the brain is activated which is in charge of the stress response.

There are then two different ways we can respond to the stressor: short-term (acute) stress is dealt with by the Sympathomedullary Pathway (SAM) whilst long-term (chronic) stress is regulated by the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal system (HPA).

In the SAM, the hypothalamus releases noradrenaline which stimulates the adrenal medulla to release adrenaline. This causes changes that prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’ such as increased heart rate and blood pressure. When you are scared or very stressed about something you can sometimes feel your heart thudding particularly hard or fast.

If the stressor does not desist and becomes a chronic source of stress, the HPA is activated. The Hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland which secretes the hormone ACTH. ACTH stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce corticosteriods like cortisol. These release stored glucose from the liver which provides the energy to maintain the stress response.

Extra cortisol in the blood stream results in a reduction in white blood cells, including killer T cells, which fight disease and infection in the body. As a result, when we are stressed for long periods of time we are more prone to colds, flu and other viral and bacterial illnesses as our immune system is weakened.

Kiecolt Glaser et al carried out an interesting study looking at the effect of stress on the immune system: Kiecolt Glaser et al study.

Stress can also raise blood pressure. Hypertension is a major risk factor in coronary heart disease so chronic stress can increase the risk of heart attacks or stroke. Furthermore, stress inhibits digestion. This can explain why when we are stressed we lose our appetites.

Hans Selye develped General Adaption Syndrome to illustrate the issues with prolonged maintenance of a stress response.

  1. First we experience ‘alarm’ and exhibit a fight or flight response.
  2. If the stressor persists we develop ‘resistance’ and take measures to maintain the stress response for example by releasing cortisol for energy.
  3. Finally we enter a stage of ‘exhaustion.’ Here the body’s resistance to stress has been greatly reduced. The immune system will be very weak so we are susceptible to illness. High blood pressure sustained for so long may result in heart attack.

Due to the breakdown of stored glucose by cortisol, the resources the body has to deal with stress are severely depleted. If the body encounters another stressor at this point and attempts to enter ‘fight or flight’ mode, the increased heart rate and breathing combined with lack of stored energy can lead to panic attacks and fainting due to exhaustion- the body simply cannot maintain the stress response. Stress can have a seriously damaging effect on our health, it’s important that we are able to relax and don’t take on too many things at once to make sure we stay healthy. I wrote a post about a method of stress management called Mindfulness a little while ago, it’s worth reading if you sometimes feel that stress gets the better of you!

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