The Physical Effects Of Stress

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Physical symptoms of stress

The physical signs of increased arousal are: a tight throat, tension in the neck and back with the shoulders raised, shallow breathing, a rapid heart beat, a tight anus, cool but mildly perspiring hands and feet, tight leg muscles, clenched fists, a frowning face.

On a purely physical level, one sign of excessive stress is tension in the body muscles. Someone who says they're suffering from nervous tension is probably suffering a predominantly physical stress syndrome. Prolonged and unabated stress can produce the wide variety of symptoms listed in Table 1.

One of the most important of these is high blood pressure, or hypertension, which develops when adrenalin is released by the adrenal glands under conditions of stress. This causes the walls of the blood vessels to constrict, which in turn raises the blood pressure; and if the stress is frequently repeated or prolonged, may lead to a permanent state of high blood pressure.

Hypertension is very common in modern Western society and presents a serious medical problem because it is directly related to the high incidence of stroke, heart disease, arteriosclerosis and kidney failure.

If you have been stressed for a long time, and relief is not in sight, it may be a good idea to check out whether or not a qualified counsellor can help you - North London Counselling is available from a counsellor who can assist people with stress related issues.

The connection between one's health and one's stress level is undisputed. For example, air traffic controllers have one of the most stressful jobs possible, with continual responsibility for the lives of thousands of people; they also show levels of hypertension five times higher than the rest of the population.

Chronic stress produces a further change in body chemistry over and above the adrenalin release of the fight-flight response: the adrenal glands also begin to produce corticoid hormones in greater than normal quantities.

The liver normally monitors the level of corticoids in the body, but during periods of prolonged stress, the liver's control system is by-passed and high levels of corticoids continue to flow around the body. Research has shown that this can lead to a loss of resistance to disease (a fact which most of us can confirm from our own experience, since, when we are under stress, we do seem more vulnerable to minor infections such as coughs and colds).

Corticoids also seem to increase the resistance of body tissue to adrenalin. However, adrenalin production does not stop, and a 'battle' between the hormones develops, until eventually the excess adrenalin breaks through the corticoid screen at the weakest point in a person's body. This often takes the form of a stomach ulcer, because adrenalin increases the output of stomach acid, which then begins to attack the tissue of the stomach itself.

Specific answers for ending depression and reducing anxiety - from the authors of "Mastering Problems Of Everyday Life."

The noted expert on stress Hans Selye put forward some suggestions to explain why different people succumb to stress at different places in the body. We can understand this by considering the stressful effects of our environment such as extremes of heat and cold.

These can be regarded as a form of stress because they are potentially dangerous and may lead to body damage. And in fact extremes of temperature do cause the production of adrenalin and corticoids. But in addition they also produce a specific effect: heat, for example, produces sweating and a flushed skin, while cold produces shivering and erection of body hair.

When you realize that all stressful situations evoke their own specific response in the body as well as the non- specific adrenalin and corticoid reaction, you can begin to understand why the response of different individuals to stress is never exactly the same. But this alone does not account for the extreme variability of physical stress symptoms between individuals. Consider the range of possibilities: heart disease, ulcers, constipation, diarrhoea, backache, asthma, dermatitis, colitis and rheumatism.

And the list continues to increase, for recent research indicates that diabetes mellitus may be precipitated by stress and that the rate of recovery from cancer be slowed down considerably if stress is high.

Hans Selye ascribes the variation in physical response to stress to heredity, environment, general health and fitness, behaviour and past illness. This is borne out by some simple observations.

For example, if you have a genetic tendency to produce high levels of stomach acid, stress will probably cause an ulcer rather than heart disease. By contrast, a man on a high fat diet who also smokes heavily may find that stress affects his circulation and heart.

This is because adrenalin causes a release of fat from body food stores; if the fat is not used for energy, it is not laid down again, but instead remains in the circulation and may be deposited on the walls of the arteries causing arteriosclerosis and coronary heart disease.

Obviously if you consume a great deal of fatty food, the risk is much greater. The influence of one's environment on stress-related disease shows up in various ways. Suppose that you watched your parents complaining about their tension headaches when you were a child. If you later experience stress in adulthood, you may well develop tension headaches.

Cultural factors also undoubtedly play a part in stress-related problems. Many people under stress report that they experience chest pains and think they are about to have a heart attack. This pain is caused by tension in the chest wall; it is very common and bears no relation to the heart. No doubt the reason why the problem is so common is our greater national awareness of heart disease because of extensive health-education campaigns.

Finally, past illness can predispose certain parts of the body to break down under stress - rheumatic fever in childhood may make heart problems more probable later in life, for example.  

There is one final peculiarity of these physical effects which we should mention before looking at the emotional side of stress. A person in stressful employment (such as long-distance lorry driving, hospital work and air traffic control) may work for years without any apparent ill-effects. He or she may then suddenly develop, let us say, stomach pains which are mild at first but soon become a full-blown ulcer. The person denies he is stressed because he has never before noticed any emotional or physical strain.

 This can happen because the level at which adrenalin and corticoids go on working during prolonged stress is below conscious awareness. Nevertheless, the damage continues inside the body, until eventually it becomes obvious as a stroke, heart attack, ulcer or some other serious disease. This is especially true when stress produces hypertension, which is often discovered only during routine blood pressure checks.

Emotionally Induced Stress

Stress can result from overwork; it can also result from boredom.

This paradoxical nature of stress has been summed up by Dr Peter Tyrer. He relates an example of a man suffering from stress induced by employment in a job which is neither dangerous nor difficult, but simply boring: it consists of adding up rows of figures in the accounts section of a tax office. The man who is doing this job is emotionally unsuited to such dreary, routine work.

He craves excitement and adventure - in fact, he finds the work so oppressive and boring that he is under considerable stress. Ibis appears as strange impulses to falsify the figures on the accounts sheet with which he is working. Eventually he resents the tyranny of boredom so much that he leaves the job and goes travelling overseas.

In this case the man's stress resulted from an emotional conflict between his need to enjoy his life and work (with some excitement and possibly danger) and his need to earn a wage in a secure job.

Conflicts like this can be made worse by particular external pressures: if the man in the example above had been married, the need to behave responsibly for his wife and children's security would have increased the pressure on him to stay in the job where he was so unfulfilled.

Clearly, then, stress is not only a problem for the highly pressured businessman with a great deal of responsibility; it is, in fact, just as likely to affect the discontented housewife living a life of boring routine, or the unemployed teenager who feels rejected by society, or anyone with a persistent source of unhappiness in their life - and, no doubt, many other types of people as well.

The Emotional Experience Of Stress

The fact that stress is an emotional experience has been recognized in our society by the way in which stressed people talk about their condition. They do not say 'I am stressed' but: 'I'm feeling anxious/depressed/fearful/angry.'

Stress can produce as many different emotions as it can physical effects, although the situation is complicated by the fact that an emotion may be a result of, or a causative factor in, stress. And once an emotion has developed, it may cause further stress. Two of the most common emotional effects of stress are anxiety and depression.

An especially important point is the different roles which the conscious and subconscious play in human emotions. Our conscious perceptions cause stress, and thereby produce emotional problems.

Changing one's perceptions about the world can therefore help to control emotional problems. However, that in itself is not usually sufficient, because patterns of emotional responses and behavior may become firmly fixed in the subconscious mind so that they are no longer open to reasoning and conscious effort. Some techniques that are useful in dealing with them are discussed later.

Sexual Problems & Stress

There's no question that sexual problems can really cause difficulties. If you lack pleasure in bed, then knowing how to be creatively intimate with a woman in bed may be very helpful. Equally, for women, here's some wonderful advice on how to be with a man and give him joy and happiness.

But what about the overt problems you face, those sexual dysfunctions which arise all too often? I'm thinking about things like premature or delayed ejaculation (and, for that matter, erectile dysfunction) in men, and anorgasmia in women? Well, you can find out here about delayed ejaculation.

Answer - at least look them up on the internet and get some information. And if that doesn't help, go and see a therapist in person.

On the next page, we look at some of the ways people try and avoid stress - and reveal that stress can be good for you!


Home ] Fight or flight - how stress works ] [ Physical and emotional effects of stress ] Good or bad stress? ] When stress becomes harmful ] Beliefs that make you stressed ] Test your own stress levels ] Reduce stress with holistic therapy ] Aromatherapy and Lumie bodyclock ] Treat your stress ] End your stress with relaxation ] Reduce your stress with self-hypnosis ] Reduce Your Stress With Diet ] Overcome the startle response ]