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What is stress?



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What is stress?

Stress is a fairly new phenomenon. I don't mean that is has just been invented but it is only recently that it has been given a name. In the 1920's a young doctor called Hans Selye realised that those who are ill share a common problem. Their illnesses are different but they share a common feeling of being ill. After searching for some time for what these common symptoms were he eventually identified the stress reaction as an underlying cause or major contributing factor to most illness.

    "Stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it."
    Dr. Hans Selye

He had identified what was to be called the "fight or flight syndrome".

In essence our bodies are wonderfully made to save us in a crises. When we are faced with an alarming situation our bodies switch into the "flight or flight syndrome". Our adrenal glands pump out some impressive stuff to get us all up and ready for the moment. Some of the body shuts itself down (or at least reduces what it needs) and the rest goes into overdrive.

We get extra of this:

  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Breathing rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Perspiration
  • Mental alertness and senses are heightened (but see below)
  • Blood flow to the brain, heart and muscles
  • Blood sugar, Cholesterol, Platelets and clotting factors

But less of this:

  • Blood flow to the skin
  • Blood flow to the digestive tract
  • Blood flow to the kidneys
  • Ability to make rational thought (we go back to very basic thinking for survival)

When you are facing a mad dog this is a great way for the body to react and helps us either defend yourself or run so fast we get away. People have been known to perform incredible acts of strength and agility when in this state.

However the body reacts in this way to anything that is perceived as a threat. This means that even simple things like having to do something you don't want to do can be perceived as a threat and the stress reaction happens.

In the short term the body soon recovers from the problem but in the longer term the chemicals that are being pumped around the body and the energy that is needed for fight and flight creates a major problem.

So under stress we experience ARE (Alarm, Resistance and Exhaustion). In the initial alarm state we react as shown above and are ready to face the problem. Then our immune system kicks into overdrive to help the body cope and we seem to be particularly resistant to disease and problems. This does not last long and our bodies slip into the exhaustion phase where we cannot resist illness and disease. This is the state that people under prolonged stress reach. It is very serious and dangerous to be in this state.

If you suspect you are under serious levels of prolonged stress you should go and see your doctor as soon as possible. Anyone who is in this condition should be checked out by a doctor before undergoing stress management training. It's not that the training is detrimental to health but just that your should check out the effects stress is having on you and not rely on stress management until you have done so.

Stress management can help you manage the stress but it won't cure you of any physical damage the stress has done to your body and this damage can be so severe that you should have a doctor check you out. Stress management can help you recover from this damage and help you enjoy a much better quality of life.

Copyright Christopher P. Brown 2005 - All rights reserved


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