We all experience stress in our lives these days. Physical, mental, financial, work, and relationship stresses all have an impact on our health and our ability to function at optimum levels.
In this article we will cover how the body deals with stress as well as how to overcome stress effectively.
Every time we experience some form of stress our body responds in exactly the same way. The stress response was first identified back in the mid 1900s by Hans Selye, an endocrinologist studying stress. He developed a model of stress called, ‘General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).’
From the model he demonstrated that, under normal conditions, the body is able to use its homeostatic mechanism (balancing system) to counter the effects of various stresses. However, if not given time to recuperate, this balancing system can eventually become overwhelmed; the body becomes unable to rebalance itself and can lead to either a hyperactive (too much) or hypoactive (too little) stress response.
(1) ALARM PHASE (FIGHT OR FLIGHT)
The alarm phase of the GAS occurs when a stress is first encountered. This alarm, often called the ‘fight or flight’ response, activates the sympathetic nervous system. From a hormonal perspective, there is an increase in release of cortisol and adrenalin from the adrenal glands. This response is a normal defence mechanism that is triggered when the body is threatened. It makes the heart beat faster to provide blood to the muscles and brain. The breathing rate also increases to supply extra oxygen to the muscles, heart, and brain. Digestion and other functions not essential for maintaining the alarm reaction are halted. The liver releases glucose (from its glycogen stores) into the bloodstream, which provides the body with fuel when faced with any real or perceived danger.
Once this phase is over, the body goes through a 24 to 48-hour period of recovery.
(2) RESISTANCE PHASE
Due to the challenges of modern life, for many people the stressors (either real or imagined) are not acute (short term) but chronic (long term). In this second phase of the GAS, the body is still reacting to a perceived stress or stresses, but some of the outwardly observable signs of stress are different. Despite the person appearing to have returned to normal functioning, levels of cortisol and adrenalin remain high. This can lead to a range of health problems including weight gain, and an increased susceptibility to infections, arthritis, allergies, and auto-immune conditions.
Chronically elevated cortisol has also been associated with increased risk of depression, insomnia, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, hypertension, insulin resistance, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other degenerative diseases.
(3) EXHAUSTION PHASE
Chronic stress can eventually lead to the exhaustion phase. In this phase the body eventually fails to fight stress anymore and simply gives up. The adrenal glands, which are responsible for releasing cortisol, become overworked and exhausted. They just fail to respond to stresses appropriately and therefore become unable to release enough cortisol. This condition is commonly known as adrenal exhaustion or adrenal fatigue and accelerates the downward spiral to chronic poor health.
The good news is that it is possible to recuperate from adrenal fatigue (or avoid it completely) through the use of a number of psychological, nutritional and lifestyle strategies.