What is Stress?
The stress response is your body and mind’s reaction to sensing danger, whether from internal or external stressors.
External Stressors can include physical conditions, such as an illness, injury, concussion, stroke, chronic pain, or situations like being caught in hot or cold temperatures.
Internal Stressors can also be physical. For instance, the body’s reaction to hot flashes, infections, and inflammation. Internal stressors can also be psychological, like fear of failure or high expectations.
What is Acute Stress and Chronic Stress?
Acute stress is short-term and is the reaction to an immediate threat. It triggers the fight/flight area of the limbic system called the amygdala, also called the fight or flight response. The threat can be any situation that feels dangerous, even if it’s not. This can cause feelings of anxiety, resulting in an increase in cortisol in your system. Traumatic events such as 9/11 or the death of a loved-one can result in acute stress.
Chronic is ongoing and long-term. It is feeling overwhelmed, living in chronic anxiety, and experiencing an ongoing fight or flight response. It can be caused by the loss of a job or home, being deported, going through a divorce, dealing with cancer or another chronic illness. Ultimately, it is a feeling of loss of control and security. The emotional effects of chronic stress are depression, anxiety, and sleep problems but it also physically affects your immune system, muscles, joints, and bones.
Common acute stressors include:
- Closeness of another person (called proxemics)
- Weather change
- Imagining a threat or remembering a dangerous situation or event
What are some Symptoms of Acute Stress?
Acute affects your autonomic nervous system that controls your saliva, pupils, breathing, blood pressure, heart rate, stomach, intestines, and bladder.
Under acute stress you may experience the following symptoms:
- Breathing may become rapid, and the lungs will take oxygen to the point of hyperventilation, you may even faint.
- Your heart will likely beat very fast, limiting the oxygen flow to your brain, which can also cause fainting. If you have any history or family history of heart problems, acute stress could cause a heart attack.
- Your stomach and intestines can go into spasm, causing you to lose control of your bowels, leading to diarrhea.
- Bladder control is often lost.
- Your mouth may feel dry, and it may be difficult to swallow. You may even feel a lump in your throat.
- Your skin is an organ too. Under acute stress, your skin and scalp can either feel tight, tingly, or itchy. Also, your skin may become cool, clammy, or sweaty. The hairs on your body will often rise in response to acute stress, like on the back of a scared cat.
- Your immune system can shut down, allowing you to get sick from a cold, viral infection, or severe bacterial infection.
- Digestive activity will slow or shut down.
Under most circumstances, once the acute threat has passed, the responses will cease, and the level of cortisol will go down, as the body returns to a normal relaxed state.
What are some Symptoms of Chronic Stress
- Heart Disease
- Prone to Infection
- Immune Disorders
- Gastrointestinal Problems
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Peptic Ulcers
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD is not caused by stress, but it can be made worse by it)
- Eating Problems
- Pain – Muscular, Joint and Headaches
- Sleep Problems
- Sexual and Reproductive Dysfunction
- Memory, Concentration, and Learning
- Skin Disorders
- Unexplained Hair Loss
- Teeth and Gum Problems
Who is at Risk?
- Early Nurturing – Children or adults raised in an abusive environment
- Personality Traits – Hearty, sensitive, or reactive
- Genetic Factors – Family history of depression, anxiety, etc.
- Immune Regulated Diseases – Rheumatoid Arthritis or Eczema
- The Length and Quality of Stressors – PTSD and wounded soldiers
- People who are targets of racial or sexual discrimination.
- Children and adults with developmental disabilities.
- Individuals without health insurance.
- Sandwich Generation – Taking care of younger children and aging parents, while working one or more jobs.
- Isolated individuals
- People who live in the city.
- Working Mothers
- Young Adults
- Lack of Social Network
- Angry Personality
Work Related Factors
- Having no say in decisions that affect one’s job
- Unreasonable demands for performance
- Poor communication among workers and employers
- Lack of job security
- Long hours
- Too much time spent away from home and family
- Office politics and conflicts between workers
- Pay not equal with level of responsibility
What Conditions have Similar Symptoms as Stress?
The physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder can look like many of those of stress, including a fast heart rate, rapid shallow breathing and increased muscle tension. Anxiety is an emotional disorder, but with feelings of apprehension, uncertainty, fear, or panic. The triggers for anxiety are not necessarily tied to specific stressful situations. Some people with anxiety disorders have many physical complaints such as headaches, stomach issues, dizziness, and chest pain. Severe cases of anxiety are taxing and can interfere with one’s career, family, and social life.
Depression can also be a taxing condition, and like anxiety disorders may be the result of untreated chronic stress. It also looks the same a some symptoms of stress including changes in appetite, sleep patterns, and trouble focusing. Serious depression, however, is set apart from stress by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loss of interest in life, and sometimes thoughts of suicide. It is also recognized by significant changes in how the person functions. Professional therapy may be needed to find out if depression is the main problem.
Self-Medication and Unhealthy Lifestyles Make Matters Worse
If you are one of the millions of people who try to resolve acute or chronic stress with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, or overeating, you might feel some comfort or relief in the moment. However, the long-term effect of self-medicating can intensify the physical effects. It then becomes a vicious cycle, the self-medication causes a heightened stress response, causing greater sleep problems and an increased perceived need for drugs and alcohol. For example, drinking five cups of coffee can cause changes in blood pressure and stress hormone levels, as with the levels produced in chronic stress. Sugar is another major factor, especially if you have had some form of brain injury such as a concussion, stroke, or brain surgery.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a complicated reaction to a very traumatic event.