Stress is any factor in a person's life that causes change. It can include emotional, physical, social or economic pressures.
Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat. This is commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. The threat can be any situation that is experienced as a danger. Common stressors include, noise, crowding, isolation, illness, hunger, danger and infection. Imagining a threat or remembering a dangerous event can also evoke a stress response.
Modern life frequently results in on-going stressful situations. These may include difficult work or personal situations. Psychological pressures such as relationship problems, loneliness, and financial worries can lead to chronic stress. Physical illness, especially chronic conditions, is another common source of stress.
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For most people, stress is almost always present. Too much stress can seriously affect physical and mental well being. Stress decreases the quality of life by reducing feelings of pleasure and accomplishment. At some point in their lives, almost all people will go through stressful events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope.
Stress affects the body in many ways, including:
Long term stress can lead to physical or psychologic damage to the body. Stress can cause the following problems:
- the release of chemicals called catecholamines from the brain. These are a group of hormones that include adrenaline.
- an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, as the heart and lungs work harder. The rate of breathing also increases and the lungs take in more oxygen. The blood flow increases to get the body ready for added demands.
- dryness of the mouth and throat. Blood flow decreases to areas that are less important for basic survival, including the mouth. This causes dryness of the mouth and difficulty talking and swallowing.
- cool and clammy skin, as blood flow is diverted to vital organs and muscles
- slowing down of digestion of food
When stress does occur, it is important to recognise and deal with it. People handle stress differently. What works for one person may not work for another. Some examples of ways to help ease the tension from stress include:
- psychological disorders. Chronic stress may develop into more serious problems, such as an anxiety disorder or depression.
- heart disease. Mental and physical stress is a trigger for unstable angina, which is chest pain due to not enough oxygen reaching the heart. There is a higher risk for serious heart events, such as heart attacks. Death can occur from such events. Sudden stress can cause the heart arteries to constrict, causing blockage of blood flow to the heart. People under a great deal of stress are also more likely to have high blood pressure, which can further increase the risk of coronary artery disease.
- stroke. The high blood pressure which can occur with stress has been linked to higher risk of strokes.
- increased risk of infection. Chronic stress may cause the immune system to become less effective. This leaves a person more vulnerable to colds and flu's.
- digestive problems. Prolonged stress can disrupt the digestive system, irritating the large intestines. This can lead to diarrhoea, constipation, abdominal bloating, and cramping. Stress may predispose a person to peptic ulcers.
- weight problems. The effects of stress on weight can vary. Some people lose their appetite and lose weight. Others develop craving for "comfort foods" such as salty or sweet food, which can lead to weight gain.
- diabetes. Chronic stress has been associated with the development of diabetes and the impairment of a person's ability to manage the disorder.
- pain. Chronic pain caused by arthritis and other conditions may be made worse by stress.
- sleep disorders. it is important for a person under stress to get enough sleep. However, stress may cause trouble sleeping or insomnia, or cause the person to awaken during the night or early morning.
- skin. Stress plays an important role in a number of skin conditions, including acne, hives, psoriasis, and eczema.
- sexual and reproductive disturbances. Stress can lead to decreased sexual desire and erectile dysfunction, and may affect fertility. Stress hormones have on impact on the hypothalamus gland, which makes reproductive hormones.
A doctor should be consulted for unmanageable stress. It is important to seek help if stress is causing insomnia, depression, severe anxiety, or affecting a person's ability to function.
- being physically active. This may relieve the "up tight" feeling that is common with stress. Walking, running, playing tennis, or working in the garden are some examples.
- talking to someone. It often helps people to share their concerns with others. Talking with a friend, family member, teacher, or counsellor can help people see their problems in a different light. When stress becomes overwhelming, different psychological therapies can be helpful These include identifying sources of stress, changing priorities, changing one's response to stress, and finding methods for managing and reducing stress.
- taking care of one's body. Getting enough rest and eating well can help increase a person's ability to deal with stressful situations.
- relaxing. It is important for individuals to balance work with play.
- practicing deep breathing. Breathing becomes shallow and rapid during episodes of stress. Taking deep breaths can help a person "wind down."
- getting involved with other people. People may feel better by helping someone else. It is also helpful to establish a support system.
- making lists. Making a list and eliminating items when they are complete can help make tasks feel less overwhelming. It also lends a feeling of accomplishment.
- not holding back tears. Sometimes a good cry makes people feel better.
Author: Gail Hendrickson, RN, BS
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 11/11/2004
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request