Understanding stress

by Peter Ramsey

Sometimes we call something stress when we really mean stressor or the things that cause us stress. We may think of our work as stress or family life to be stress.

Stress technically is not the conditions that cause us stress. Stress is the body's non-specific response to any threat or demand to which it is subjected.

For our cells to multiply in an ordered manner, certain metabolic parameters must be maintained within narrow limits. This is called homeostasis.

For example, the acidity of the blood has to be maintained within narrow limits to be compatible with life. Any changes imposed on it from outside, and the body will resist with all the powers at its disposal.

In resisting such changes, stress develops.

Sick patients that suffer completely different illnesses may all share common symptoms like fur coated tongues, mailase etc. This is because the human body experiences the same set of non-specific reactions whenever it is "stressed" by an outside influence that challenges its homeostasis.

This is what stress is; the body's non-specific reaction to any threat or demand, called GAS, or General Adaptive Response.

The thing that causes the stress therefore can be referred to as the stressor. A stressor can be physical, or it can be pshycological.

GAS occurs in three stages:

1. Alarm.

Biological preparation to fight or flee kicks in: Defences are mustered, the immune system reacts, muscles and nerves prepare for action, hormones are secreted, nutrients are mobilised.

2. Adaptation (resistance).

The body's defences are maximally mobilised to meet the challenge. However, should the stressor not be beat or removed from the person in question's life, the next stage is reached:

3. Exhaustion.

The body starts to give up the fight, its weakest systems break down followed by the others, leading to chronic fatigue and illness which may finally lead to death.

These three fases are controlled and regulated by the adrenal glands, which secrete important hormones in response to a stressful situation. Adrenal glands are composed of an adrenal cortex and an adrenal medulla.

The medulla, the inner part of the adrenal glands, will in a stressful situation secrete adrenaline and nonadrenaline. These stimulate many of the body's processes like increased heart rate, faster breathing, re-distributing of blood supply, increased blood sugar levels, blood pressure etc.

The outer layer of the adrenal glands, the cortex, secretes a different group of hormones, collectively referred to as corticosteroids. Part of these, the cortisol, increases blood sugar drastically and suppresses the immune system. Aldosterone specifically increases sodium retention in the kidneys, in order to increase blood pressure. At the same time, potassium excretion is increased.

When meeting danger, this response of the body is of course desirable. But if the body is in this state permanently, as when one's daily life is one continuous stressful ball of anger and scare and never dealt with so as to come to a resolution, heart disease, high blood pressure and all that comes with an exhausted immune system, eg. repeated infections or cancer, will follow.