Have you ever felt so stressed that it got you sick?
It is a wide-known fact, already regarded as common sense, that too much stress can be detrimental to our health. Not only does exposure to it affect our behavior and vice-versa, it also affects our body, specifically our nervous and immune systems. Here is the analysis of the process.
The General Adaptation Syndrome
Austrian-Canadian endrocrinologist Hans Selye was the founder of the field of research concerning stress and its effects on the human body. He studied the sequence of events experienced by the body during stress adaptation, called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). According to Selye, the body goes through three stages or responses during stress:
- Alarm: Upon the initial awareness of a stressor, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which triggers the fight-or-flight response, kicks in.
- Adrenal glands release stress hormones that increase heartbeat, blood pressure, and blood sugar. This leads to a sudden adrenaline rush i.e. a burst of temporary extra energy to aid the body in dealing with the stress.
- The goosebumps you feel and the heightened reaction time are further effects of the energy burst during alarm.
- Resistance: As long as the stressor is present, the body will attempt to fight off or resist it by entering into sympathetic division activity. This stage will continue until the stressor goes away or all of the organism’s resources run out, whichever happens first.
- Sympathetic division activity prepares the body for more energy output and protects it from harm. Digestion decelerates, pupils dilate, and the effects of the previous stage continue, albeit to a lessened degree, and the organism will feel more relaxed.
- Sympathetic division is the emergency division of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), a division of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) that controls involuntary body function.
- One of the stress hormones, noradrenaline (or norepinephrine) actually seems to affect the brain’s processing of pain, causing analgesia (insensitivity to pain), researchers found. For instance, during your panic (in flight) you may not have realized that you have bruised your arm until after the stress is gone. Another is that you may be able to tolerate more pain when during a fight with someone or something (like burns from fire).
- Exhaustion: This occurs when the body has depleted its resources, either before, during, or after the stressor ends.
- Exhaustion may lead to the formation of stress-related diseases such as hypertension and a weakened immune system, or even the death of the individual if external aid is unavailable.
- When the stressor ends, the parasympathetic division (rest-and-digest response) activates and attempts to restore back lost resources. The body still produces stress hormones, however.
Alarm and resistance are stages that we frequently experience throughout life, allowing us to adapt to life’s harsh demands. However, it is the prolonged secretion of the stress hormones during exhaustion that bring the fatal effects of stress. This aspect convinced other researchers to see the connection between stress and, in Selye’s words, diseases of adaptation.
Example: You are out for a jog. Suddenly, you hear the barking of a dog. You later realize that it’s right behind you, and it’s chasing after you.
- Alarm: Upon seeing the large dog, its fangs, and its foaming mouth, you immediately deduce that you’re in danger. So, you get goosebumps and feel a sudden rush of energy, and try to run (flight) to a safe spot before the dog bites you.
- Resistance: As you flee, the body releases additional adrenaline so long as the stress (the dog) is present. You can run for an extended amount of time and distance, more than when you’re just out for a brisk sprint. Your body will suppress any pain you may feel in this stage.
- Exhaustion: The dog is gone. You are very, very tired and starting to lose consciousness. There may even be a chance you will suffer a heart attack. Lingering goosebumps indicate stress hormones are still present.
Stress and Your Defense
Selye first discovered the relationship between stress and the immune system. Psychoneuroimmunology concerns the study of physiological effects (stress, emotions, behavior, thinking, etc) on the immune system.
When stress is good
When leukocytes (white blood cells) surround a pathogen, they surround it and release the chemicals and enzymes into the bloodstream. Such chemicals activate receptor sites on the vagus nerve, alerting the brain that the body is sick and making the immune system work even harder.
Stress works the same way except that rather in the bloodstream, it starts in the brain. Just as constant exposure to weak pathogens further activates the immune system, so does exposure to stress. In other words, stress makes your body’s soldiers even stronger.
When stress is bad
The immune system serves to protect the body from harmful pathogens; however, it may find itself under friendly fire. Basically, when you subject yourself to stress, and you deal with it the wrong way (see first link above), or when you take in too much, you are bringing yourself down. The body produces cortisol, which suppresses inflammation, during stress. If it lingers for too long in the body (chronic stress), we will begin resisting it, leading to chronic inflammation. The body resists by releasing cytokines, substances associated with chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions. Such negative effects persist even after the stress itself disappears.
Illnesses brought by stress include heart diseases, cancer, depression, and HIV/AIDS. It affects not only those exposed to stress, but also those around them.
When we are stressed or challenged, we feel we are threatened and need either to fight back or run away. Some forms of stress are good and beneficial whil others are bad, but having too much of stress is tantamount to suicide. We need to change either our environment, where there are less problems, or our reaction thereto, where we can use stress always as a motivator.
Claudette, A. (2011). Introduction to Psychology, 1st ed. Pearson Education South Asia Pte Ltd.
Selye, H. (1956). The Stress of Life.
Autonomic Nervous System. Retrieved from www.indiana.edu