It is believed that stress comes in two forms. Acute or sudden stress, that by definition, is brief and has an endpoint. The body’s response to this is to change the biochemistry in the blood to give the body a sudden boost of energy. This energy gives the body more strength, heightened senses and an awareness that imminent action is likely. In situations like this, if action isn’t taken to rectify the stressful event, the body might use this energy on itself. So it is not uncommon for people experiencing sudden stress to clench their fists, clench their jaw or grind their teeth. In some cases they may get headaches, blood will pump faster through the body and veins may bulge. Other symptoms might be cramps or bloating of the stomach. On the whole, however, sudden stress is an inevitable consequence of living and the body’s response is appropriate and necessary.
Stress becomes a problem when it is severe stress. Commonly described a chronic stress, it is stress that is prolonged and unrelieved. It is often a consequence of the person not dealing with small stressors that overtime become bigger or combine with other stressors to snowball into something that is uncontrollable.
Severe stress might be overworking – spending long hours at the office doing something that has an unrealistic deadline. This could cause the person to develop an unhealthy lifestyle, where they eat fast food and rarely exercise. This, in itself, would cause symptoms of ill-health if it continued for any length of time, but it would not be stress related unless the person involved was reacting to it in a stressful manner.
By this, I mean, the body’s response to the situation would be to trigger the release of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol and oxytocin into the bloodstream for a prolonged length of time. These hormones are agreed to be the bodies common response to something that is perceived as stressful. They are what gives the body it’s boost of energy. This response has been dubbed the ‘fight or flight’ and more recently the ‘tend and befriend’ response.
Simply put, these hormones put the body on high alert. You could use the analogy of a fire alarm going off. This works to wake people up and escape from a burning house but can you imagine if this fire alarm went off for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It would soon become intolerable to live in the house.
The hormones cause a number of changes in the body. They increase the blood pressure. This is bad for the health of the heart over a long time. The increase in adrenaline and cortisol is also thought to increase the chances of heart disease. The blood becomes thicker, in preparation for an injury, and this can lead to blood clots that lead to strokes. Blood is diverted from the stomach and this can lead to cramps, diarrhoea, constipation or bloating.
The stress hormones overstimulate the immune system which over time starts to work against the body or is unresponsive to real threats to the body. This means people suffering from severe stress catch colds, flu’s and possibly worse far easier than people who are not as stressed.
Severe stress gradually becomes debilitating because it works on all of the body’s systems. All types of complaints could be a consequence of stress ultimately. The key is to be responsive to the changes in your body and determine if this could be stress related. Then take action to defuse this stress or find an outlet for the pent up energy.