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  • Writer's pictureAngela Belcher

Stress

Understanding Stress: The Double-Edged Sword of Motivation and Strain

We hear the term every day, sometimes all day, yet we cannot seem to agree on what exactly stress is. The American Psychological Association defines stress as “a normal reaction to everyday pressures, but can become unhealthy when it upsets your day-to-day functioning” (APA, 2023). The APA believes stress to be a reaction to stimuli, while the World Health Organization defines stress as “a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation.” They explain stress as a “natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives” (WHO, 2023).


The Nature of Stress

Stress can be a positive thing because it motivates us to change our environment in some way. This description is crucial: stress is anything that motivates the body to function differently, even if those differences are so slight that we don’t notice them consciously. A thought, an action, or something witnessed can all be considered stress because our bodies change the way they operate when we’re exposed to those stimuli. There are good stresses, bad stresses, and distress. Good stress makes us happy or excited; bad stress brings us down, and distress hinders our ability to function normally. Stress is an essential part of how we function, but we cannot handle stress for extended periods, and this is where many people begin to struggle.


Types of Stress: Acute and Chronic

Acute stress is a short-term situation that resolves reasonably quickly, such as a sudden fright. Chronic stress occurs when the stress does not resolve over time, such as being in a dysfunctional relationship or having a terminal illness. Since the body must maintain balance in all systems at all times, the brain dumps chemicals into the bloodstream to counteract the stimuli that caused the stress. This process is called a “stress response” or the body’s reaction to a demanding situation (Mass General). In normal situations, the body quickly recovers, and balance is achieved. Prolonged stress, or chronic stress, occurs when the body cannot recover balance. The chemical dumps continue to circulate in the body, targeting muscles first and most frequently, then eventually the heart, stomach, skin, adrenal glands, and ovaries.


The Impact of Chronic Stress

Over long periods, these chemical dumps cause excessive wear in most of the body’s systems and organs. Musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, reproductive, digestive, and nervous systems all respond negatively to chronic stress (APA, 2023). Because the body must maintain balance, it will pull resources from some systems to manage the chronic stress. The “starved” systems will still function but not at their peak performance. Chronic stress has the same effects on the body as intense fear or anger, but in much smaller increments and over a prolonged period (Seaward, p. 228). Situations such as emotional and physical abuse, a relationship that takes more than it gives, and the long-term effects of a traumatic event are all indications of chronic stress.


The Toll of Chronic Stress

For every year of intense stress, the body ages approximately six years (Sapolsky, 1990). In Portrait of a Killer by National Geographic (2008), we learn chronic stress is not an abstract state of mind; it is measurable, it kills brain cells, it adds fat to the body, it unravels chromosomes, it causes plaque to build up in the arteries, it shrinks the brain and arteries, and it reduces the function of digestive, reproductive, and immune systems. Stress affects brain chemistry, learning capacity, stress responses, and makes us more susceptible to mental and emotional illness. When left unchecked, chronic stress builds up in the body until it threatens our very existence. One example of this is General Adaptation Syndrome, which is a disease characterized by excessive wear and tear on the body due to lack of homeostasis (Seaward, p. 228); homeostasis is the balance the body maintains in order for its systems to function. Other illnesses and diseases that are directly linked to stress include suppressed immune function, asthma, diabetes, ulcers, atherosclerosis, mental illness, depression, schizophrenia, and there’s evidence of a link between chronic stress and tumor development (Salleh, 2008).


Conclusion

Living under constant stress not only doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you sicker. Understanding stress, recognizing its types and effects, and taking steps to manage it are crucial for maintaining overall health and well-being. By addressing the root causes of stress and employing strategies to mitigate its impact, we can lead healthier, more balanced lives.

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