The reaction to stress is a primitive adaptive response the purpose of which is to help you survive in “stressful” situations. Your body responds exactly as it did thousands of years ago. To understand its impact on your physical self, let’s go back to cave man days. You are out hunting for dinner and suddenly you see saber toothed tiger who is also out looking for a meal. You freeze. You are very still, but your body is not. Your concentration is hyper-acute and focused. You brain is working as fast as it can analyzing all possible choices and outcomes. Your body has prepared you for the response to an aggressive onslaught.
Your breathing rate has doubled. This brings more oxygen into your lungs and is filtered into the blood stream. Your blood pressure has increased twofold. This speeds the flow of blood through the veins and arteries to provide faster access to white blood cells if there is an injury or cut. Your pancreas has released stores of sugar to give you more energy instantly. You notice that your muscles are very tense, but ready to spring into action.
All aspects of your body’s functions that are critical for survival are on high alert, but those not needed are decreased. Your digestive system is slowed. You can’t think of eating. Your reproductive system is not important. You certainly are not thinking of sex. Your immune system is lowered, since your body is not worried about catching a cold.
The tiger moves on, and you are safe. As you sit down to wipe your brow, you find that your heart rate and breathing are slowing down to normal. If you measured your blood pressure in your caveman way, you would find that it also dropped back to its usual level. Your body has returned to its pre stress condition.
WHY STRESS IS A PROBLEM
The reaction to stress is designed to help you survive. When the stress is over, your body returns to its normal state of functioning. One problem with life today is that the stress does not end. Think of your Blackberry. That’s right, you have absolutely no free time. Now remember your obligations at home and at work. Think also about your other pressures, time, money, and schedules. Very often the stress does not remit in our lives, and our bodies do not go back to a normal state. Instead, they stay on high alert all the time.
The problem with this is that the aspects of your system that were not needed in survival mode are very much needed under normal conditions. Your immune system needs to function for you not to get sick. Dozens of studies have demonstrated a direct link between stress levels and lowered t-cell counts. Others have demonstrated the connection between stress and heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and diabetes,. Gastro-intestinal disorders like IBS, peptic ulcers, headaches, sleep disturbance, sexuality, fertility, and memory loss are all targets of stress.
WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT BEING UNDER STRESS
Stress takes a great toll on your well being. A 2007 survey from the American Psychological Association showed that nearly a third of U.S. adults report “extreme stress”.(Web MD- story by Miranda Hitti)
The results include:
32% report extreme stress
Nearly one in five (17%) reach their highest stress level 15 or more days per month.
Almost half (48%) say their stress level has risen over the last five years.
Stress didn’t come as a surprise. Most participants indicated that stress is a natural part of life. But the survey shows that participants are suffering physically, emotionally, professionally, and personally as a result of stress.
STRESS AND HEALTH
Most participants — 82% — say they manage their stress well. But they also admit that stress causes problems with their physical and mental health, relationships, and work.
More than three out of four participants — 77% — said that within the previous month, they had had physical problems due to stress.
Those problems included fatigue, headache, upset stomach, muscle tension, change in appetite, teeth grinding, change in sex drive, and feeling dizzy.
Almost as many participants — 73% — reported stress-related psychological symptoms in the previous month, including irritability, anger, nervousness, lack of energy, and feeling on the verge of tears.
LOSING SLEEP, EATING BADLY
Stress kept nearly half of participants — 48% — awake at night during the previous month. They reported losing 21 hours of sleep during that month.
Almost half of participants — 43% — said they had overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods because of stress in the previous month. Candy and chocolate were their most popular comfort foods.
Two-thirds of smokers said they smoked more when they were stressed, and 17% of drinkers said they drank too much within the previous week because of stress.
SOURCES OF STRESS
Work stress and money stress were common. Almost three-quarters of participants noted those stressors, up from 59% last year.
Housing costs (rent or mortgage) stressed about half of the participants (51%).
Here’s how the stressors ranked. Participants could pick more than one source of stress.
Family responsibilities: 60%
Health concerns: 55%
Health problems affecting spouse, partner, or children: 55%
Health problems affecting parents or other family members: 53%
Housing costs (e.g. rent or mortgage): 51%
Intimate relationships: 47%
Women, middle-aged adults, single adults, teachers, health care workers, people on the East and West Coasts, and people with low incomes were more likely than others to report extreme stress.
The online poll, conducted by Harris Interactive in late August and early September, included 1,848 adults. It has a 2% margin of error.
HOW DO YOU FIT INTO THIS PROFILE?
Take the following 3 quizzes to measure:
- How much of your life is stressful
- What causes the stress in your life
- How effectively you cope with that stress