Protecting Yourself from the Effects of Stress

If you experience significant stress in your life on a frequent basis, you're not alone. In this fast-paced, complex world where people live and work, stress is almost a given fact of life. While a certain degree of stress can have positive effects by motivating an individual to address and react to a difficult situation more quickly, if a stress load continues over a long period of time the effects of stress on the body can be less adaptive, resulting in chronic health symptoms and an increased risk of stress-related illnesses, including heart attack and stroke.

What Exactly Is Stress?
Stress is a normal physiologic reaction by the body to what it perceives as a threatening situation or environment. Short-term symptoms of stress may include an increase in heart and respiratory rates as well as elevations in blood pressure. A person under short-term stress may feel nervous, anxious and even experience shortness of breath and a sensation of breathlessness. Other symptoms can include a dry mouth, heart palpitations, sweating, stomach upset and diarrhea. These are all physiologic reactions by the body to what it perceives as a hostile situation.

When the body perceives a stressful state it undergoes a series of adaptive changes, which include alteration in the level of certain hormones and neurotransmitters that put the body in an alert and ready state. This is often known as the "fight or flight" syndrome. When the perceived danger or hostile situation passes, levels of these stress hormones and brain biochemicals drop and the heart rate, breathing and blood pressure return to normal.

Risks of Chronic Stress
When stress is longer term and becomes more chronic in nature, levels of these stress hormones can remain elevated causing more serious health-related problems to develop due to the prolonged effects of stress on the body. These may include recurrent headaches, back pain, weight changes, sleep difficulties, changes in mood and the development of chronic health disorders, such as hypertension and heart disease.

Chronic stress can also result in memory-related problems, including difficulty remembering new information and the inability to quickly access old information. This is thought to be related to the high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is released during periods of prolonged tension and stress. Long-term stress can also increase the risk of substance abuse problems, such as drug and alcohol addiction.

How Stress Shows Up
The effects of stress on the body can be difficult to predict. Not everyone responds to stress in the same manner. There appears to be a great deal of variability in how stress is handled among different individuals as well as between the two genders. Some persons exposed to adverse circumstances are able to breeze through life's stresses without developing significant medical symptoms or health problems. Others develop stress-related illness that can become chronic and difficult to treat.

Some studies have shown that men are more vulnerable to chronic stress-related illness, such as hypertension and substance abuse, than are their female counterparts. While the exact reason for this phenomenon isn't known, men and women tend to have different coping mechanisms for dealing with stress. Men are more likely to confront a stressful situation directly by attempting to conquer it, control it or flee from it. Women are more likely to seek out social support from friends and family to help deal with stressful circumstances.

Some studies show this more adaptive response to stress may be physiologically mediated by the release of a hormone called oxytocin. Women secrete higher amounts of this hormone when confronted by stress than do men. It's thought that this oxytocin release may counteract some of the negative effects of stress on the body as well as offset the effects of the stress hormone cortisol released during encounters with tension-producing situations.

Pay Attention
No matter how your body reacts to stress, ignoring the problem can have serious health consequences. It's estimated that up to 75% of all visits to physicians are directly or indirectly related to symptoms of stress. Not surprisingly, more women than men openly seek the help of their family physician or other health care professional when they are experiencing symptoms of stress or stress-related illness. Men are more likely to deny the problem or attempt to self treat the symptoms, which may contribute to the higher rate of drug and alcohol addiction seen in men exposed to chronic stress.

There's no doubt that stress is a fact of life and is likely to remain an integral part of our fast-paced society. Although stress can't be completely eliminated, strategies for dealing with stress-related issues can be developed so that the effects of stress on the body are reduced, resulting in the development of fewer cases of stress-related illness.

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