WHAT IS STRESS? A pre-requisite entry for “Is stress getting a bad rap?”

Stress is a major buzz word in today’s society. That’s not likely to change anytime soon. Talk of stress permeates daily news articles, talk shows and websites (like this one!). You can create a RSS feed about stress, and there are articles about reducing the stress associated with using RSS feeds!

Why has stress become such a hot topic, for both the lay person and the research community? Well, stress affects everyone! And, it is associated with a wide variety of health issues. Besides the more well known diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, you can find articles about stress contributing to practically any disease or condition. Here’s a bit on stress causing hair loss. Here’s one on stress causing ADHD. So we get it, stress is bad for your health.

But hang on a minute! Hold your horses!
Hold your horses!

Stress has many definitions (engineering, health, economic, etc). One must be very clear, especially in research, about what definition of “stress” you are using. Stress, in terms of health, is the psychological and physical response to our perceptions of our circumstances being threatening or overwhelming. The things in our life that elicit the stress response are called “stressors”. So, just to be clear, stressors are the cause and stress is the response.

Stress, as a response, originally evolved as an adaptive mechanism. When animals (and humans) are presented with a threat to well-being, (example, a hungry lion chasing you) the stress response, characterized by increased cortisol, heart rate, respiration, adrenaline, etc, helps you escape the threat of the lion! Our perception of the lion as stressful/threatening and the physiological changes that follow help us survive.

Stressors today are very different from the hungry lion (e.g. worry/anxiety about money troubles, traffic jams everyday after work, relationship troubles, etc). Most contemporary stressors are not threatening our immediate survival, but we still experience stress. Unfortunately, for humans, most of our stressors don’t go away like a lion might. The stressors of contemporary living are longer lasting and there are more of them and as a result we experience a continually activated stress response (chronic stress).

This point is well illustrated by the title of Robert Sapolsky’s book “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers”. The idea is that once the lion has stopped chasing the zebra, the stress response shuts off (and the zebra doesn’t get an ulcer).

Both short-term/acute and chronic stress are driven by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol causes and helps trigger many of changes characteristic of the stress response mentioned above. While those changes are helpful in the short-term, to escape the lion, if continually activated the stress response can have a massively negative impact on the cardiovascular system, immune system, nervous system, digestion, sleep, mood, etc, basically all aspects of health.

Once we understand what stress is, many important questions follow:

1. What are the stressors in our life?
2. Is there something about the way we perceive our world, our situations that makes us experience life as more stressful than it ought to be? Are we causing ourselves stress?
4. How can we reduce the negative impact of stress?
5. Why are some people more negatively affected by stress than others?

I could start to answer these questions, but, instead, I’d like to ask a couple questions that I don’t think are being asked enough: Is stress all that bad? Is stress getting a bad rap? I’ll address those questions in the next post!

2 thoughts on “WHAT IS STRESS? A pre-requisite entry for “Is stress getting a bad rap?”

  1. Pingback: Is STRESS getting a bad rap? « McCormick Health & Wellness

  2. Ginkgo

    Great post. Ever hear of a book called Caffeine Blues? It makes a damn strong case for caffeine being one of the largest contributors to chronic stress.

    The alertness response that you get from caffeine is because (hopefully memory will serve here) the molecule binds to the adenosine receptors, which activate the stress response. You’re alert after a cup for the same reason, as a result of the same chemical connections that make you alert when fleeing a zebra. (Let’s ignore for a moment that zebras are herbivores.) In a fight/flight situation, it’s adaptive to pay attention.

    This is also the reason why coffee makes you poop, and can lead to digestive problems. Confronted with a bear (or zebra), digestion is inhibited because it it a process that demands much of the body’s energy. You also may shit yourself for the same reason: it is the opposite of helpfull to have a stomach/digestive track full of food when fleeing for your life.

    Trick is, the half-life of caffeine is relatively long. Studies (insert imaginary citation here) have shown that even one small cup at 7AM can still have an effect of quality of sleep hours later. Thus starts the cycle: poor sleep leads to increased caffeine usage leads to caffeine tolerance leads to worse sleep etc. And all this leads to stress and irratibility, which you know plenty about. As you pointed out, our body has a beautiful mechanism of control, the sympathetic nervous system (or is it para-), to rein in stress when the danger has passed. However, the same system is unable to do this when the stress is chemically induced. Hence, phenomenon like inappropriate irratibility or impatience in normal stress level situations.

    As a personal anecdote, I work with many schizophrenic men, all of whom drink a shit ton of coffee. Not only will the increased stress levels as described above have a negative impact on symptoms, but coffee also appears to inhibit the effectiveness of antipsychotic medications.
    Thanks for giving me a space to rant.


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