Stress is now an everyday fact of life, affecting and influencing people whether they are high-pressure executives, isolated housewives or even school children. The medical profession view stress as a major causative factor in coronary heart disease, cancer, ulcers and other digestive disorders, as well as diabetes and a host of other illnesses. If we can adapt our lifestyle to minimise the effects of stress, this makes a huge impact on our attitudes and happiness.
What is Stress?
Stress is by no means just a modern occurrence, although the rapid pace of life and increased global travel has encouraged a proliferation of sufferers. Stress occurs when the body is required to perform beyond its normal range of capabilities. The body's reaction, known as the 'fight or flight' response, is to produce a surge of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones prompt a number of 'alert responses' through heightened muscle tension, increased heart rate and metabolism, pupil dilation and raised blood pressure. This is designed to help us confront the situation with enhanced strength and awareness (fight) or to run away more effectively (flight).
The physical response to stress, in small doses, is good for us and helps us to function more effectively under pressure for short periods of time. However, in the long term it can be extremely damaging; for example - stress inhibits the secretion of protective fluids which normally neutralise stomach acid, ulcers are the resulting lesions. When stress goes beyond optimum levels, it drains our psychological energy, impairs performance and can leave us feeling useless and undervalued, with reduced purpose and unattainable objectives.
Hans Selye was the first to identify the general adaptation syndrome (GAS) model governing our reaction to stress. He recognised three phases within this response:
First the body is alerted (alarm reaction), during which physiological responses are momentarily reduced whilst the body summons strength. Next, autonomic activity is triggered (resistance) and physiological responses are heightened for a duration dependent on the stamina of the individual. Under usual circumstances the body would then revert to its original equilibrium. However, if this stage continues, there is a sharp decline in resistance until eventually collapse occurs (exhaustion). At this point physiological resistance may cease to exist at all.