Stress is a medical term for a wide range of strong external stimuli, both physiological and psychological, which can cause a physiological response called the general adaptation syndrome. General adaptation syndrome, or GAS, is simply a term used to describe the body’s short-term and long-term reactions to stress.

Stressors can include physical stressors such as starvation, being hit by a car, or suffering through severe weather. Additionally, people can suffer such emotional or mental stressors like the loss of a loved one, the inability to solve a problem, or even having a difficult day at work. Concepts such as anxiety, antagonism, exhaustion, frustration, distress, despair, overwork, tension, over-focusing, confusion, mourning, and fear have all come together to be recognized under the general broad term, stress.

Varieties of stress include both negative life events (distress) and positive life events (eustress). While both produce physiological and psychological effects, prolonged distress can have serious physical impact distinct from the troubles of what psychotherapists call the “worried well,” those who are physically well but are suffering physically from psychological issues.

Physiologically, when we experience stress – whether the threat of physical harm or worry over missed work deadlines – it activates the sympathetic branch of the autonomous nervous system which triggers the release of varying levels of stress hormones including epinephrine, which is responsible for short-term stress responses, and cortisol which is released in response to long-term (chronic) stress.

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) is responsible for the commonly referred to fight-or-flight response as the body prepares to run away from or fight something. In preparation for fight-or-flight, these hormones increase heart rate and blood pressure – delivering more oxygen and blood sugar to power important muscles. They increase sweating in an effort to cool these muscles, and help them stay efficient. They divert blood away from the skin to the core of our bodies – reducing blood loss if we are damaged. These hormones focus our attention, even including pupal dilation, so we can manage the threat to the exclusion of everything else. Breathing is accelerated to supply more oxygen for conversion to energy. The heart moves into overdrive to supply the body with more oxygen and nutrients. Our immune system is activated, ready to administer to wounds. Attention and sight become acute and highly focused and our sense of pain is diminished as the body releases analgesic hormones. Moreover, the body’s physical changes includes modified mental functioning that often bypass our rational and logical thoughts.

Under the right circumstances, such as a physical attack, this system is a great aid to survival. At one point in human evolution, much like other animals, the threats that triggered these responses were real, such as an attack from a predator. Over millennia, as the human brain and more importantly, human imagination developed, the chemical responses to these stressors came to include not only those things that were actually happening, but those things we were imagining and simply thinking about.

Modern civilization mostly provides a shield against predators. Nevertheless, the inherent fight or flight response still resides within us, and the brain has not evolved well enough to distinguish between real physical threats, and those we perceive because of our thoughts.
As a result, our physical reactions to the environment are triggered by different, seemingly less life threatening events. Many day-to-day situations – a change of home, a difficult boss, divorce, separation, demanding children, traffic jams, difficult communication, the fear of terrorism, etc. – can set off not only a short term stress reaction, but increase the levels of the long term stress hormone, cortisol. When prolonged, these hormones affect memory, decision making, spatial awareness, and can even affect personality.

Not being designed to handle these hormones long-term, our bodies can begin to break down. That is why people who are over stressed not only show physiological symptoms such as high blood pressure, rapid heart rate or shallow fast breath; they can seem overly sensitive or aggressive.

Today many of us are in such constant states of generalized stress that the body’s natural means for recovering from stress – the parasympathetic system – is never fully effectuated and we never fully recover or eliminate these corticosteroids from our system. We’re left with “stress build up.” We may learn to control our reactions, but this does not counteract the stress response. Insomnia, anger, and depression are all frequent reactions to generalized stress.

Recognizing stress for what it is may be the first step in lessening its impact. Many of us spend so much time in a stressed state; we have forgotten what it feels like to be fully relaxed and alert. Being stressed out begins to feel normal. It becomes important therefore to include as a component of our every-day-life, those activities that naturally reduce stress:

  • Take a time-out. Practice yoga, listen to music, meditate, get a massage, or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem helps clear your head
  • Eat well-balanced meals. Do not skip any meals. Do keep healthful, energy-boosting snacks on hand
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine, which can aggravate anxiety and trigger panic attacks
  • Get enough sleep. When stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest
  • Exercise daily to help you feel good and maintain your health
  • Take deep breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly

Even if we’re not taking specific steps to change our environment or how we think about stressors, these activities help our bodies to better manage the effects of stress.

In the modern world it is often impossible to eliminate all of the external stressors that are the cause of our physiological reactions. Gaining control over and changing our environment is one way to reduce the occurrences of stressful situations, but many are out of our control. With help from professionals such as counselors and other stress management experts, almost anyone can find greater peace and learn to moderate those reactions by modifying how we think about and respond mentally to what’s happening.