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The Dangers of Stress: Signs, Symptoms, and Effects

It’s the same routine every day: Your alarm goes off, jolting you awake and immediately kicking your body into overdrive to begin the day. Frantically, you jump in the shower and then throw together an outfit for the day, all while murmuring the talking points of the presentation you have to give to that big client today. You make the rounds to get the kids up and moving, and as they drag their feet getting ready, you whip together a quick breakfast for them. You yell upstairs that there’s food in the kitchen and to make sure not to miss the bus. You rush to your car to drive to work and of course traffic is horrible. It takes every fiber of your being to refrain from shouting “Go!” every 30 seconds to the car in front of you. You finally pull into the parking garage at work, and as you turn off the car, you sigh because you just remembered that PTA meeting you have to attend tonight. Not to mention you left your bagel and coffee on the counter at home.

It’s not even 9 a.m., and already your body and mind have endured a tremendous amount of stress. It may just seem routine to you, and you may have learned to cope and even suppress the ramifications of this high-alert lifestyle, but years and years of this continued stress can yield many short- and long-term effects on your physical and mental health. Make no mistake—nearly everyone, at some point or another, deals with their own type of stress, and no one person deals with or responds to it the same way. It’s important for you to know and be able to identify the signs and symptoms of chronic stress for the safety of yourself and those around you.

What is Stress?

“Stress,” says ExaminedExistence.com, “is the human body’s natural response to any change in the environment that requires an action, reaction, or adjustment to what’s normal.” Stress can manifest itself in many forms, but oftentimes it is the result of the pressures from work, family life, or relationships. It has been found that three-fourths of the world population undergoes stress in any given two-week period, and that the working population bears the brunt of the physical, mental, and emotional tolls of stress.

Stress has long been defined as the fight or flight response (or the acute stress response). The term was first coined by psychologist Walter Cannon in the 1920s, and it was used to describe the animalistic response to threats through an adrenal discharge. When a threat or danger is identified, neurons fire from the sympathetic nervous system to the body, resulting in heightened reaction and decision-making abilities. This response also physically affects the body, causing restriction of blood vessels and increased heart and breathing rates often associated with escape or combat.

It was later found that this basic response to stimuli is the foundation to what has now become known as chronic stress. The fight or flight response, when triggered in moderation, is an effective tool of motivation and heightened brain activity that is essential to performing our daily tasks. It is when this response is compounded multiple times throughout a day or, more importantly, over a long period of time, that an unnecessary burden is placed on the body—and medical complications can arise.

There are two primary components that determine what causes stress in an individual:

Stressors: The situations and pressures that cause stress are known as stressors. We usually think of stressors as being negative, such as an exhausting work schedule or a rocky relationship. However, stressors are simply defined as any situation that may put a burden on you mentally or physically. That can include even positive scenarios, such as getting married or receiving a promotion.

Perception: It is a misconception that all stress is derived from stressors. If this were true, everyone that underwent the same stressors would have the same stress response. However, it is often the individual’s perception of stress that determines the response to that situation or pressure. For example, one person sitting in traffic might lose all rationality at the situation and yell at the cars in front of them, while another person might quietly accept the situation and know that no amount of anger will move the traffic any further. Unfortunately, stress is not 100 percent cause and effect, and that can make it difficult to identify symptoms on a case-by-case basis.

Signs and Symptoms of Stress

Once again, a little bit of stress is a good thing and is often necessary to promote productivity and motivation. However, there’s a fine line when it comes to your stress levels. Like a snake in the grass, stress can creep up on you, and if you aren’t careful, it can bite you before you have a chance to react. You may not notice it, and it may come to feel normal to you, all the while slowly and discretely taking a toll on you. This is why it’s important to be able to identify the symptoms of stress overhaul before it gets to be a problem.

The American Institute of Stress has compiled a list of the top 50 signs of stress, including everything from the grinding of teeth to increased drug or alcohol abuse. The list is too much to cover here, but take some time to scan this list. You might just identify a symptom in yourself you didn’t realize was a sign of excessive stress.

Effects of Stress

It would be nice if the effects of stress were as cut and dry as the symptoms of the common cold. However, many major illnesses, viruses, and diseases can be directly linked back to excessive stress on the body. Stress is a factor in five out of the six leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer, stroke, lower respiratory disease, and accidents. An estimated 75 percent to 90 percent of all doctor visits are for stress-related issues. Let’s take a look at just a few of the negative effects that unnecessary stress can have on the body.

Depression: In the book The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Illness, authors Allan Horwitz and Jerome Wakefield highlight that approximately 10 percent of the population will be affected by major depressive disorder, or MDD. Stress and depression go hand in hand. The loss of a job or a loved one, for example, can be the root of prolonged stress, and that stress can invoke feelings of hopelessness and dread often associated with major depression. Depression can be both the result of and the cause of stress, so it can be difficult to identify which is the root of the other, further complicating finding a resolution to the problem.

Common illnesses: At one point or another, everyone is going to incur the wrath of the common cold. However, you might have noticed that you are more susceptible to illnesses when you are under a lot of stress. This is no coincidence—researchers at Carnegie Mellon have unearthed definitive proof that you are more likely to catch a cold when undergoing massive amounts of stress. This is because of the demand that the fight or flight response has on the body; as adrenal levels increase, other parts of the body—such as the immune system—are suppressed, reducing your inflammatory response to pathogens.

Cardiovascular issues: As aforementioned, the fight or flight response associated with prolonged stress puts a significant burden on the heart and blood vessels. When faced with a change or threat, your heart rate rises and blood vessels tighten as your body is exposed to heightened levels of adrenaline and cortisol. As you can imagine, prolonged exposure to these factors can weigh on your cardiovascular system, leading to complications such as heart attack and stroke. Additionally, leading a stressful life can promote unhealthy habits like poor diet and smoking, which also may harm the cardiovascular system.

There are a myriad of issues that are linked with heightened levels of stress, but they all seem to be connected by one similar thread. As your body kicks into overdrive to deal with the perceived threat or danger at that moment, other systems in the body are weakened. Prolonged inactivity of these systems opens your body to attack from various external factors.

Common Misconceptions about Stress

All stress is bad stress.

Because of our overexposure to it, stress has really gotten a bad wrap over the years. But as stress biologist Daniela Kaufer has found, moderate and intermittent exposure to stress can help promote learning and memory.

Her studies involved exposing rats to small bouts of stress at various intervals. After the fight or flight response has subdued, stem cell growth is stimulated, and those go on to form additional brain cells. Over a few weeks, her team observed an extensive increase in the rats’ ability to learn and memorize.

“The prevailing idea in our culture is that stress is bad,” says Kaufer. “People complain about being stressed out. But we’re learning that moderate amounts of stress have powerful benefits.”

Stress makes you more aggressive.

In the late 1990s, scientists began to argue that, when under stress, most women forego the fight or flight response associated with stress and opt for a “tend and befriend” response, or a reaction of protecting (tend) and offering of friendship (befriend). Men were still thought to adhere to the fight or flight response, but new evidence shows that men might also utilize the tend and befriend method to cope with stress.

A team of researchers led by Prof. Markus Heinrichs and Dr. Bernadette von Dawans—psychologists and neuroscientists at the University of Freiburg, Germany—studied how men react in stressful situations—and have refuted a nearly 100-year-old doctrine with their results. Participants in the study were introduced to a stressor of having to give a presentation and then monitored for their social behavior afterward.

“From previous studies in our laboratory, we already knew that positive social contact with a trusted individual before a stressful situation reduces the stress response,” says Heinrichs. “Apparently, this coping strategy is anchored so strongly that people can also change their stress responses during or immediately after the stress through positive social behavior.”

Mitigating Stress

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, no two people respond to stress—whether tangible or perceived—in the same way. Therefore it is extremely difficult to definitively construct a uniform way for everyone to deal with stress. There are seemingly gimmick-like measures you can take, such as eating a small amount of chocolate a day to regulate your stress levels, but it is really up to you to determine what works best. Practicing self-discipline, such as being attentive to time management and eating a healthy diet, is definitely a good place to start.

Stress can be, well, stressful, but learning how to use it to your advantage and not be bogged down by its negative effects will certainly result in a happier and more productive life.