AN OVERVIEW OF STRESS
We humans respond to stress in one of two ways – fight or flight. In primitive times this fight / flight response was simple and over in a few minutes so the body could return to normal. Today, however this is not so true; we have far more stressors to contend with, for example noise, money, relationship problems, financial worries, a frightening experience, bad news the list goes on and on. Our general health depends mostly on how we are able to fight stress and disease and depending on our body type, personality and lifestyle stress can trigger a range of health problems. “Although the exact role of stress in human diseases it is not known it is clear that stress can lead to certain diseases”. (Tartora & Grabowski 1993:559). Stress related disorders can include such illnesses as gastric ulcerated colitis, IBS, peptic ulcers, hypertension, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, migraine, anxiety and depression. It has also been shown that people under stress are at greater risk of developing chronic disease or dying prematurely. (Tortara & Grabowski 1993:559)
Stress now seems to be endemic – a 21stcentury disease in fact – however when we can understand how stress works and our ability to cope with it, it becomes easier to handle.
Let me explain. If we go all the way back to cavemen times, when we, as homo sapiens were developing, the system that governs our stress response developed to handle only two stressors – stay and fight the sabre tooth tiger (and get a meal) or run away (and most probably be the meal!!) in other words – Fight or light.
This system is called the autonomic nervous system – (not the central nervous system). Now the ANS is divided into two, so think of it as a seesaw. So there we are hunting and gathering, doing what ‘cavemen’ do, and then along comes the tiger. Up goes the seesaw and this is when the adrenalin, cortisol, noradrenaline – all the stress hormones come into play and flood our system hence we go into stress mode – the fight or flight – however this was short lived back then and we either killed the tiger and got the meal or got killed and we were the meal, but either way the stress was over and down came the seesaw to level and we carried on until the next ‘tiger’ However fast forward to the 21stcentaury and we seem to have stress 24/7/365.
So what is Stress? The Dictionary of Nursing Oxford Reference 1992 defines stress as follows:-
“Any factor that threatens the health of the body or has an adverse effect on its functioning, such as injury, disease or worry. Constant stress brings about changes in the balance of hormones in the body”
Stress is a totally normal re-action. We need stress and it is perfectly healthy in limited amounts, however it becomes a serious risk when it occurs too often. The results of which may result in emotional and physical burnout.
However no two people will re-act to stress in the same way. What may be a positive stressor for one person could be a negative stressor for another – or to quote an old adage “What’s one mans meat is another man’s poison”.Not only that but each individual’s reaction to stress can vary, depending on the state of health, circumstances etc. at the time of the stress occurring.
When we are in stress mode changes happen to the body and other systems ‘shut down’. One of the first system to shut down is our digestive system. Why ‘cos when we’re fighting the tiger we are not going to eat a meal, so everything that supports the digestive system is diverted to the help ‘fight the tiger’!! So what can happen – nausea, indigestion, ulcer, IBS etc. The reproductive shuts down – by the same token – we’re not going to be making babies whilst fighting the tiger!! The immune system takes a knocking, our breathing is shallow, which in turn effects our circulation. How many times have you been so stressed you actually may have held your head and said “I’m so stressed I can’t think straight” Well you can’t and it’s not your fault.
But you can do something to take control of your stress and recognize when it’s happening.