What is Stress? The physiology of chronic stress, causes, and solutions

What is Stress physiology chronic stress causes

Chronic stress is a phenomenon that we increasingly have to deal with in our society, which seriously undermines our health. Combining an unhealthy lifestyle makes it one of the most destructive diseases we have to deal with. By recognizing the signals in time, we can take measures and avoid burnout in time.

Definition of stress

Stress is the term used for various negative feelings and reactions that arise during threatening or challenging situations in life.

It is the way the body responds to any extraordinary load (physical or mental) or threat. When you sense a danger – whether real or imagined – the body activates by shifting into a higher gear so that the body is able to fight or flee. This is called the “stress response.”

This response is the body’s way of protecting itself. When it works well, it helps you stay focused, energized, and alert. So stress can save your life in emergencies. For example, you get extra strength and speed to defend yourself, or you can respond extra alertly when necessary.

Stress can also help you overcome challenges. It keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, delivers top performance with sports, or encourages you to study while you prefer to watch Formula 1.

The downside

Yet stress is not always favorable because, from a certain point, it will cost you more than it will bring you. After a tipping point, pressure is no longer helpful and begins to wreak havoc on your health, mood, productivity, relationships, and quality of life.

If you often find yourself feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, it is time to take action to rebalance your nervous system. You can often protect yourself by changing the way you think and how you react to stressful events. In addition, you can learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress and take steps to reduce its harmful effects.

Physiology of stress: This happens in your body

When you feel threatened, the nervous system responds by activating the adrenal glands. These produce the stress hormone cortisol and the alertness hormone adrenaline. These hormones put the body in an increased state of alert. They make the heart beat faster and more intensively, the blood pressure rises, and the blood draws from the periphery of the body so that the vital organs and muscles have better circulation to fight or flight. Breathing also speeds up to transport more oxygen to the muscles, and the senses become sharper.

All of these physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and improve your focus, so you are prepared to fight or run.

Acute versus chronic stress

Of course we can distinguish different types, such as:

physical stress: prolonged exercise, illness, injuries, wounds

emotional stress: emotional events such as divorce, bullying, social exclusion

cognitive stress: job loss, overthinking

chemical stress: overexposure to chemicals such as cleaning agents, plasticizers, exhaust fumes

electrostress: excessive exposure to radiation from telephones, laptops, routers, cell towers

However, the above types do not have to be immediately noticeable. Sometimes it can take years for the symptoms to emerge, and often there are cumulative factors, where combinations of stress factors together lead to an increased stress experience. For that reason, a rough distinction is made between acute and chronic stress.

Acute stress occurs when a specific event causes stress, such as an acute injury at the gym, a brawl that involves you, or is about to be robbed. In acute stress, it is a good thing that we have a stress response so that we can respond well and alert to the situation and protect ourselves.

However, when this stress becomes chronic, our adrenal glands work overtime because they constantly need to produce cortisol. There is no longer anyone specific reason or trigger. Under chronic stress, the body experiences stress for a longer period of time.

This prolonged stress period can stem from traumatic life experiences, constant life setbacks, unhealthy relationships, chronic illness, or a disrupted work relationship. Chronic stress can have serious consequences for your physical and mental health.

Effects of chronic stress

However, our nervous system is not very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. When you are very stressed by a situation at work or a divorce, your body can react just as strongly as if it were a life or death situation. And the more often this emergency stress system is activated, and the lower the trigger that activates it, the more difficult it becomes to turn it off.

The term “chronic stress” describes the situation just described: the body and mind have reached a very low-stress threshold, and therefore, we are in an almost constant state of stress. And that can lead to serious health problems. Chronic stress disrupts nearly every system in the body. It suppresses the immune system, disrupts digestion, causes increased sensitivity to inflammation, and also an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Especially when there is long-term stress, it is able to rewire the brain structure so that you can only judge the world from a state of anxiety.

Stress symptoms

People who are exposed to a lot of stress and therefore experience chronic stress may experience the following symptoms. These complaints can vary in severity from mild complaints to very serious panic attacks. Different combinations of complaints can also occur. While one person may suffer from some symptoms, another can suffer from almost any common complaint.

  • Depression and anxiety
  • Pain of any kind
  • Sleep problems
  • Feeling restless/rushed
  • Inflammation
  • Impaired immune function
  • Digestive Problems
  • Skin conditions, such as eczema
  • Heart complaints
  • Weight problems (obesity or weight fluctuations)
  • Decreased libido
  • Thinking and memory complaints

The insidious thing about stress is that it is an assassin. You get used to it, and for some people, it is even addictive. You don’t notice how much of an impact it has on your health, even though it takes a heavy toll. The symptoms and complaints are so gradual that your health often suffers badly the moment you are aware of what you are doing to yourself. For this reason, it is crucial to be aware of the first signs so that you can intervene in time.

Cognitive stress symptoms

  • Memory problems
  • Bad concentration
  • Poor reasoning skills
  • Negative attitude
  • Anxious or racing thoughts
  • Constantly worrying

Emotional Symptoms

  • Depression or unhappiness
  • Fear
  • Excited (adrenaline)
  • Moodiness, irritability, or anger
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Loneliness

Physical symptoms

  • Aches and pains
  • High blood pressure
  • Digestive complaints, such as constipation/diarrhea
  • Muscle tension / cramps
  • Nausea, dizziness
  • Chest pain, palpitations
  • Decreased libido
  • Regular cold or flu

Behavioral symptoms

  • Eating attacks, need for sweet / carbohydrate-rich food
  • Sleeping too little
  • To withdraw from social relationships
  • Postpone or neglect responsibilities
  • Addiction sensitive
  • Ticks or twitches like nail-biting and pacing

Causes of stress

The causes of stress are also called stressors. We usually view stressors as unfavorable, such as a tiring workday or a relationship that is not going well. But we must realize that anything that we set high standards or have expectations for can cause us stress. It is, therefore, good to recognize that we ourselves are largely responsible for the stress we experience.

Giving a presentation to more than 100 people is a piece of cake for some, while others lie awake for nights. The causes of stress mainly depend on your own perception. Something that is a life-sized obstacle for you is an egg for someone else, which he/she can even enjoy. Where one person thrives under pressure and performs best in the face of a tight deadline, another will tip over. We all have our own perceptions based on our own personal frame of reference.

In addition to our personal perception, there are also stressful factors that are considered “universally stressful,” or factors that are perceived as stressful for every human being. Examples of these universal causes of stress are:

  • Significant life changes (natural disaster, war)
  • Work or school (discharge, fail exam)
  • Relationship problems (divorce)
  • Financial issues (personal bankruptcy)
  • Being too busy (extreme (working) pressure)
  • Children and family (serious illness, disability)

The way you deal with these kinds of stressors plays an essential role in how successfully you are able to withstand this stress. Factors that you can control and with which you can improve the handling of stress are:

Pessimism: If you only emphasize the disadvantages and negative sides of each situation, you will never like reality, and you will often experience stress as a result of your own opinions.

Control freak: A control freak is known for his / her inability to accept uncertainty. If you realize that you cannot influence about 80% of what happens in your daily life, then you are struggling a lot, while it causes you mountains of frustration and thus stress.

Stubbornness: Stubborn people are inflexible and inflexible and therefore have difficulty anticipating changing circumstances. For that reason, they often experience a lot of discomfort.

Negative self-talk: a negative attitude often produces a negative outcome. Like the pessimist, self-critical people constantly suffer from stress. Example: “I probably can’t.”

Unrealistic Expectations: Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups. You assume that something will go “like this and so.” Well, that’s not good. It is the flexible, anticipatory mind that makes a person powerful.

Sink or Swim Attitude (Fatalism): Some people take up a challenge based on an expectation. It’s all or nothing. If the outcome of the challenge is disappointing, they are completely taken aback. Crying, angry, the world is ending…!

Most stressful life events

According to the widely validated Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, these are the top ten stressful life events for adults they can experience during their lifetime that are particularly stressful:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Divorce/end of the relationship
  • Get married
  • Start a new job
  • Stress factors in the workplace
  • Financial problems
  • Moving away
  • Chronic illness or permanent injury
  • Retirement
  • Growing up: from adolescent to adult
  • What is stressful for you?

Whatever event or situation you find yourself in, it is always up to you how you deal with it, tackle the problem, and restore your balance. Some of the most common causes of stress in life are:

Stress at work

While a bit of work pressure is good, excessive stress can disrupt productivity and performance, leave a trail in your physical and emotional health, and indirectly put a lot of strain on both your professional and private relationships. Your tolerance can make the difference between success and failure at work, as well as at home. Regardless of your ambitions or skills, it is important that you have a certain degree of resistance.

Job loss and unemployment stress

Losing a job is one of the most stressful experiences in life. In the top 10, this experience is number 7. Of course, it is normal to feel angry, hurt, or depressed, and you can cry if you liked your work. Of course, it will be a challenge to find a new job, and it is uncertain what the future will bring. But realize that this happened for a reason. Does life teach you a lesson? Perhaps there is even something better in store? Show yourself that immediately after the announcement of your resignation, you will be on the hunt for a new job with determination. Or let the Law of Attraction do its job.

While the stress may seem overwhelming at first, there are always steps you can take to become stronger, more resilient, and with a renewed sense of focus on the future. Remember that this temporary stress only serves the release of emotions and habits. Get back together and get on with your life constructively.

Financial stress

Everyone has to deal with financial trouble from time to time in their life. Whether it is due to job loss while you have a sky-high mortgage or due to a stock market crash where your entire portfolio has become worthless, we all experience it once. Financial worries are one of the most common stressors today, especially in times of economic downturn. Of course, it can cause stress, but be aware that it is better to spend your energy on a plan to get out of this unpleasant situation than on anxiety.

Grief and loss

When you lose a loved one to a scary illness or accident, that is the number 1 stressor you can experience as a human. The pain and stress result in literal pain in your heart, and nothing seems to help you get over this bad event. Emotions of shock, anger, disbelief, and deep sadness will take hold of you. And there must be mourning. You have to process everything in this situation.

Be aware that you can work alongside the grieving process to rebuild your future and regain your niche in life.

When are you under too much stress?

You have too much stress when you experience well-known symptoms such as high blood pressure, heart palpitations, irritability, sleeping problems, and reduced libido. “Keep running” to keep all the saucers in the air is also one of the well-known symptoms.

Stress-limiting factors

Because stress is an assassin, it is important to recognize these symptoms so that you can intervene in time before you end up in burnout. However, how much stress is “too much” varies from person to person. Some people seem completely resistant to any form of stress; others immediately fall into a depression if they do not have cheese on bread.

The point is that you know how to build up a certain degree of stress tolerance, and the following factors can play a supportive role in this:

Your network: a network of friends and family members can support you and point out if you seem a little stressed. Of course, it’s important not to get into a negative role and make fun of yourself. Moreover, when you can count on the people around you, the pressure in life does not seem so overwhelming. On the other hand, the lonelier and more isolated you are, the greater your risk of falling prey to stress.

Feeling of control: as long as you feel that you can keep everything under control, you experience little pressure. If you have confidence in yourself and your ability to deal with events and challenges, you will experience less stress, and it is easier to deal with pressure. On the other hand, if you believe that you have little control over your life so that you have the perception that you are at the mercy of your environment and circumstances, then stress is more likely to throw you off your path.

Your attitude and perception: the way you think about life and how you deal with inevitable challenges makes a huge difference in how you manage stress. With an optimistic and open attitude, you are much less vulnerable to stress. Stress-resistant people take on challenges more easily, have great self-relativity, sense humor, believe in a higher purpose, and accept change as an inevitable part of life.

Your ability to deal with your emotions: When you are not in control of your own emotions, you are at the mercy of your feelings. By training your brain to be stronger than your emotions, you will be less likely to lose yourself in emotions. You have the ability to identify your emotions and deal with them appropriately can increase stress tolerance.

Be prepared: the more you know about a stressful situation, including how long it will last and what to expect, the easier it will be to deal with it. Of course, there is the danger here of being confronted with unmet expectations, so be flexible in dealing with them.

Learn to relax: Although you can never completely avoid stress, you must maintain a healthy balance between exercise and relaxation in your life. Relax with yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises that activate the body’s relaxation response, a state of calm that is the opposite of the stress response. If you exercise regularly, these activities can reduce your daily stress levels and enhance positive feelings. They also increase your ability to stay calm and collected under pressure.

Stress and heart coherence

Stress and heart coherence are two opposites. A state of heart coherence is a state of the body in which the body is free from stress, is nicely relaxed, and where a feeling of happiness is experienced. In a state of heart coherence, the heartbeat, breathing, and brain work together in perfect harmony.

stress heart coherence

Research from HeartMath Institute shows that this state is easy to achieve with some practice and that people who control this process benefit from more efficient physiological processes, greater emotional stability, increased mental clarity, and improved cognitive function. In short, if we can achieve heart coherence, everything in our body works better, and we have better health, both physical and emotional, and thus better tolerance.

The Institute’s HeartMath exercises help you to achieve heart coherence and to overcome feelings of pressure. In addition, the HeartMath equipment can measure the degree of heart coherence in real-time so that you know when you are stress-free.

Related blogs

We are using cookies