The Physiological Effects of Stress on the Human Body

The Physiological Effects of Stress on the Human Body

1. Introduction

Stress is a term that is commonly used today but has become increasingly difficult to define. It shares, to some extent, common meanings in both the biological and psychological sciences. The term stress had none of its contemporary connotations before the 1920s. It is a form of the Middle English destress, derived via Old French from the Latin stringere, “to draw tight.”

That term was used in the 17th and 18th centuries to refer to a great emphasis or importance that was placed on something, and it was not until the beginning of this century that the word was used to describe a force or pressure. While it is not very clear how the term came to its present usage, it is currently a noun for a state.

In some ways, this usage involves an “act of applying force” and in other ways, it involves a “state of being forced to act”.

In this essay, Stress: Physiology, Biochemistry and Pathology, J.J. Smyth defines stress as “it seems probable that the essence of the concept of stress is an adaptive response pattern to a situation which is perceived as threatening to the well-being of the organism, and some element of the pattern is effective in ameliorating the situation.” This term usually denotes a negative condition. Given that, today’s usage of the word usually implies a pressured or unhappy state of mind and it is often used to define a harmful stimulus, or a learned response, or a result of all these, many patients and students of stress will find it ironic that the original meaning of the word is derived from a Latin term to pull or draw tight. Stress the verb was first used in the 1530s with the literal meaning to put to the torture. This is an informative point considering that, in its current usage, many people would consider stress to be nothing less than a tortuous affliction.

2. Causes of Stress

Due to the fact that stress and how it affects a person is variable and depends on the way in which an event is perceived, it is clear that the same event can appear to be a very different thing to two people, and therefore causing differing stress responses. The factors that affect the stress response to an event can be highly individualistic. They can range from values to beliefs, to personality or even mood. But generally, and with the exception of acute traumatic events, it is the severity of how stressful an event is and the acute and chronic stressors that can follow, that can determine the long-term effect of the stress on the person.

There are many different things in which our mind and body can perceive as threatening or challenging and therefore can elicit a stress response. These stimuli, which cause stress, are known as stressors. The thing in which a person perceives to be a stressor does not cause the same reaction to all people. For what is stressful for one may not be for another. Stressors can be categorized into categories of acute, chronic, and sequence. An acute stressor is a thing of immediate short-term onset. It can be simple and minor events or traumatic events. Anything that inhibits a person from openly expressing emotions can be a cause of stress, e.g. public speaking. Chronic stressors are the making of negative conditions that extend over a long period of time, during which they erode self-esteem and change how a person adapts to changes in their lives. A sequence stressor is a change, a chain of events that can be a positive or negative evaluation. It is a string of events that happen to the person and lead to an adaptation of changes in their life, e.g. the marriage or birth.

The causes of stress

Stress has many forms and many faces, but primarily it is a fact of life to which we all face at one time or another. There are many physiological effects of stress and their ability to make one ill, through a myriad of possibilities. In this essay, there will be an outline of the stress, a thesis statement, and an exploration of the types of stress and the ways to manage it, which is crucial with the powerful effects of stress. And finally, there will be a clear and pointed resolution to wrap things up in a tidy and summarized package.

3. Physiological Responses to Stress

This is a primitive response and something that we inherited from our ancestors. While this response can be beneficial, as we are more prepared to perform and can do so with heightened awareness, it can also be very detrimental to the well-being of a person. High blood pressure is not a healthy thing and if maintained over a period of time can cause major problems, such as heart attacks and strokes. The body is better at handling acute stress than long-term stress. With acute stress, the body is usually able to return to normal functioning. However, long-term stress can lead to a range of illnesses and diseases. With the prolonged heart rate and dilation of the blood vessels, too much energy is exerted which can leave the heart damaged. Also, high levels of the stress hormones are linked to a greater susceptibility to viral infections. This is due to the suppression of the body’s immune system from stress hormones. Non-vital processes are also suppressed in an effort to conserve energy, for instance, digestive and reproductive functions. This allows more energy to be used by the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. This can lead to stomach aches and a loss of sex drive to more severe symptoms such as erectile dysfunction and infertility. In an attempt to repair itself and restore homeostasis, it has been speculated that stress utilizes body resources needed for normal maintenance and repair of the body, and this is why the prolonged state of stress can result in fatigue and depression.

When faced with a challenge, whether it is taking a test or an important decision like changing jobs, our bodies produce a kind of preparedness to encounter the challenge by producing stress hormones. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to muscles, heart, and other important organs. The pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person breathes faster and more deeply. Increased blood pressure drives blood to the skin and results in perspiration in an attempt to cool the body. Pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible. The mind becomes more alert and aware of the surroundings. With the body on high alert, it is prepared to do more to survive the situation, this is known as the fight or flight mechanism.

4. Long-term Effects of Chronic Stress

The effects of stress on the prefrontal cortex, the area at the front of the brain, are also very significant. The prefrontal cortex is critical in the regulation of the amygdala and emotion. It is also important in higher-order executive control processes. These are a set of cognitive processes that are used in the formulation, monitoring and flexible attainment of goals. Executive control processes are essential when someone is attempting to cope with the effects of stress because they are what allows a person to consciously control their emotions and their rumination over stressful incidents. The damage to the hippocampus and the increased secretion of stress hormones lead the changes in the prefrontal cortex. Collectively the changes in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are thought to mediate the effects of chronic stress on the development of various mood and anxiety disorders.

The long-term effects of chronic stress on the brain are complex, but one of the most consistent findings is the structural and functional changes to the hippocampus. This part of the brain is crucial in the consolidation of short-term to long-term memory, as well as spatial navigation and the regulation of complex emotions. The hippocampus has been shown to be particularly vulnerable to stress, with numerous studies in animals demonstrating that prolonged stress and exposure to stress hormones can result in atrophy of the hippocampus. This has been associated with a number of cognitive deficits, as well as the development of stress-related psychiatric disorders.


5. Coping Mechanisms and Stress Management

Coping flexibility refers to the ability to discontinue an ineffective coping strategy and produce and implement an effective alternative. This also closely matches the definition of adaptive coping – to continually cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person. This definition is important because coping is not necessarily restricted to efforts to eliminate the stressor. Instead, it is simply the efforts to manage the demands of the situation or the emotional distress the situation creates. And this has clear implications on what exactly stress management is.

In an extensive meta-analysis of the literature, it was found that problem-focused strategies led to better adjustment and psychological health, while emotion-focused strategies led to poor adjustment and depressive symptoms in the long term. This is not to say that emotion-focused coping is maladaptive. There are many studies showing positive effects of strategies such as positive reinterpretation and acceptance. But as a generalization, the match between the coping strategy and the nature of the stressor determines the coping strategy effectiveness. And thus, coping flexibility has become a new focus in this area.

Appraisal-focused strategies seem to be most useful when the stressor is something that cannot be changed. Emotion-focused strategies are mainly useful in situations where the stressor is something that cannot be changed, while problem-focused strategies are most effective when the stressor can be changed.

Coping strategies can be roughly divided into two categories: “within the self” strategies are aimed at changing one’s emotional response to a stressor, while “action-oriented” strategies are designed to change the nature of the stressor itself. The effectiveness of different strategies has been the subject of much research. Much of this literature has suffered methodological shortcomings, but there are some general patterns emerging.

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