WHAT STRESS DOES TO THE BODY

Adapted from Engs, R.C. Alcohol and Other Drugs: Self Responsibility. Tichenor Publishing Company, Bloomington, IN, 1987

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Stress is thought to be an important factor in many health problems. Early stress researchers found that regardless of the environmental stressor, a generalized physiological response was activated in the organism called the "fight or flight," or stress response and termed the General Adaptation Syndrome by Hans Selye. When an individual encounters a stressor, the body part that first notes the stimulus passes the signal to the brain. The message passes through the reticular activating system to the hypothalamus and thalamus. When the hypothalamus experiences the stressor signal, it simultaneously activates the two major stress pathways: the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system. When the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system is activated by the hypothalamus, involuntary functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and body fluid regulation are affected. At the same time, the pituitary gland is stimulated, which in turn orders the release of several chemical hormones. The chemical cortisol provides fuel for the "fight or flight" response by increasing blood sugar so that there is energy for action. Aldosterone increases the blood pressure. Epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are also produced, along with thyroxine.

These brain chemicals, elicited by the fight-fight response, in turn, cause the following to occur:

    1. Acceleration of heart rate
    2. Dilation of coronary arteries
    3. Dilation of bronchial tubes
    4. Increase in force of heart contractions
    5. Increase in rate of metabolism
    6. Increase in anxiety
    7. Increase in gastrointestinal motility
    8. Increase in rate and depth of respiration
    9. Decrease in feeling of tiredness
    10. Decrease in Salvation (dry mouth) 11. Dilation of pupils

The physical problems related to chronic stress include the lowering of the immune response, chronic muscle tension, and increased blood pressure. These problems can eventually lead to serious life-threatening illnesses such as heart attacks, kidney disease, and cancer. Holmes and Rahe and others have found that individuals who have undergone several stressful life events over a year's time have a much higher probability of developing these types of serious illness, within a few years of the events, than non-stressed individuals. During the middle 1970s, research by Mason et al. And Lazarus demonstrated that vast individual differences exist in how individuals respond to stress-producing stimuli.

  • diarrhea
  • nausea
  • indigestion
  • sphincter of Oddi spasms
  • spastic colon
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • constipation
  • colds and sinus infections

  • vaginal yeast infection
  • bladder infections

  • fiber myalgia
  • arthritis
  • high blood pressure
  • heart disease

  • hyperventilation
  • asthma

  • headaches
  • migraines

Some individuals react with the "fight or flight" response, whereas other individuals either suppress the response or do not react to it at all. To accommodate the individual differences in the activation of the stress response, the concept of cognition was proposed. In other words, the thought process of the individual in response to the stressor is considered important. What might be perceived as a stressor by one person might not be seen as a stressor by another. As an example, if a professor announces a surprise quiz, student "A" might then experience extreme anxiety and the fight-flight response. Student "B" may experience no activation. This could occur because student "A" had never reviewed the notes from the class while student "B" had.

This concept of selectively responding to a stress stimulus was coined by Lazarus, Stensrud and Stensrud, and others as the coping theory of stress. An individual being stimulated by a stressor appraises the stimulus to determine if it is a source of a) threat, b) loss or harm, c) challenge, or d) irrelevancy. If upon appraisal it is determined that the stimulus is irrelevant or harmless, no stress response is activated. However, if the stressor is seen as harmful and the stress response is activated, a coping response occurs. If the coping response, such as taking three deep breaths before beginning the speech before the large group of people, is successful, normal physiological functioning will soon resume. According to Stensrud and Stensrud, if the coping response is not successful and/or the person experiences chronic stressful arousal from a variety of stimuli, unhealthy results, including physical and psychological health problems, can occur.

According to various authors in the book The Addictive Behaviors, individuals with compulsive disorders, including alcoholism, gambling, overeating, or smoking, often increase negative behavior, or undergo a relapse, after they have been through a stressful time period. Herman and Polivy feel that emotional stress leads to increases in binge eating. Hooker and Convisser believe that anger resulting from stressful situations also plays a part in some addictive disorders. As an example, individuals who do not express anger outwardly often turn it inward. When this occurs, it may lead to depression. To relieve the discomfort they feel because they have not expressed their anger, these individuals begin to overeat or engage in other addictive behaviors. Some researchers in feel that stress contributes to addictive behaviors. Individuals begin to use the drugs as a way of relieving the anxiety and tension associated with the stress response and to feel good. However, getting involved with substances, or any other addictive behavior, only increases the anxiety and stress, thus perpetuating a vicious circle. Why some individuals engage in an addictive behavior or develop an illness while others do not is not known at this time. Perhaps an individual inherits a "trait" to develop a health or an addictive behavior problem. Depending upon early family and environmental influences, including ways of coping with everyday stressors, the person either learns to cope with stress in a positive manner or develops physical, emotional or addictive behavior problems.

Look to other health hints for reducing stress and coping with addictive behaviors


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  • (c) 1978-1999, Ruth C. Engs, Bloomington, IN