Stress is the body’s natural defense against predators and danger. It causes the body to flood with hormones that prepare its systems to evade or confront danger. People commonly refer to this as the fight-or-flight mechanism.
When humans face a challenge or threat, they have a partly physical response. The body activates resources that help people either stay and confront the challenge or get to safety as fast as possible.
The body produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These trigger the following physical reactions:
These factors all improve a person’s ability to respond to a potentially hazardous or challenging situation. Norepinephrine and epinephrine also cause a faster heart rate.
Environmental factors that trigger this reaction are called stressors. Examples include noises, aggressive behavior, a speeding car, scary moments in movies, or even going out on a first date. Feelings of stress tend to increase in tandem with the number of stressors.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA)’s annual stress survey in 2018, average stress levels in the United States were 4.9 on a scale from 1 to 10. The survey found that the most common stressors were employment and money.
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Stress slows down some normal bodily functions, such as those that the digestive and immune systems perform. The body can then concentrate its resources on breathing, blood flow, alertness, and the preparation of the muscles for sudden use.
The body changes in the following ways during a stress reaction:
- blood pressure and pulse rise
- breathing speeds up
- digestive system slows down
- immune activity decreases
- muscles become more tense
- sleepiness decreases due to a heightened state of alertness
How a person reacts to a difficult situation will determine the effects of stress on overall health. Some people can experience several stressors in a row or at once without this leading a severe stress reaction. Others may have a stronger response to a single stressor.
An individual who feels as though they do not have enough resources to cope will probably have a stronger reaction that could trigger health problems. Stressors affect individuals in different ways.
Some experiences that people generally consider to be positive can lead to stress, such as having a baby, going on vacation, moving to a better home, and getting a promotion at work.
The reason for this is that they typically involve a significant change, extra effort, new responsibilities, and a need for adaptation. They also often require a person to take steps into the unknown.
A person may look forward to an increased salary following a promotion, for example, but wonder whether they can handle the extra responsibilities.
A persistently negative response to challenges can have an adverse effect on health and happiness.
For example, a 2018 review of studiesTrusted Source
found associations between work-related stress and coronary heart disease. Despite this, the authors could not confirm the exact mechanisms through which stress causes coronary heart disease.
Other literature has shown that people who perceive stress as having a negative effect on their health may be at higher risk for coronary heart disease than those who do not.
However, being more alert to the effects of stress may help a person manage it more effectively and cope better.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recognize two types of stress: acute and chronic. These require different levels of management.
The NIMH also identify three examples of types of stressor:
- routine stress, such as childcare, homework, or financial responsibilities
- sudden, disruptive changes, such as a family bereavement or finding out about a job loss
- traumatic stress, which can occur due to extreme trauma as a result of a severe accident, an assault, an environmental disaster, or war
This type of stress is short-term and usually the more common form of stress. Acute stress often develops when people consider the pressures of events that have recently occurred or face upcoming challenges in the near future.
For example, a person may feel stressed about a recent argument or an upcoming deadline. However, the stress will reduce or disappear once a person resolves the argument or meets the deadline.
Acute stressors are often new and tend to have a clear and immediate solution. Even with the more difficult challenges that people face, there are possible ways to get out of the situation.
However, repeated instances of acute stress over an extended period can become chronic and harmful.
This type of stress develops over a long period and is more harmful.
Ongoing poverty, a dysfunctional family, or an unhappy marriage are examples of situations that can cause chronic stress. It occurs when a person can see no way to avoid their stressors and stops seeking solutions. A traumatic experience early in life may also contribute to chronic stress.
Chronic stress makes it difficult for the body to return to a normal level of stress hormone activity, which can contribute to problems in the following systems:
A constant state of stress can also increase a person’s risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can develop when stress becomes chronic.
Chronic stress can continue unnoticed, as people can become used to feeling agitated and hopeless. It can become part of an individual’s personality, making them constantly prone to the effects of stress regardless of the scenarios that they encounter.
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