Everybody has a story.
- The unreasonable boss or lousy job,
- The injury or illness
- Money problems
- The loved one with an addiction
Most of the stories are real — things with which the person has to deal every day. (A few people make up stories to get attention; that’s a different topic for another time.)
In the lexicon of research, all of these things are stimuli. They’re things that happen that require some kind of response. In physics, Newton’s Third Law makes it easy —
For every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t apply to thought and emotions. Instead, human responses can be —
- Proportional (optimal)
- Inadequate (hypofunction/allostasis, or inadequate adaptation to a stimuli)
- Excessive (hyperfunction).
In neurology, these stimuli are called “stressors.” How you respond to them is the “stress response” or “stress.” Stressors are perceived threats, and the human body reacts to them in ways not unlike when early humans stumbled into the path of a dinosaur. The body releases a variety of hormones that impact almost all major systems in the body.
The stress response is mediated by the stress system, partly located in the central nervous system and partly in peripheral organs. The central, greatly interconnected effectors of this system include the hypothalamic hormones arginine vasopressin, corticotropin-releasing hormone and pro-opiomelanocortin-derived peptides, and the locus ceruleus and autonomic norepinephrine centers in the brainstem. Targets of these effectors include the executive and/or cognitive, reward and fear systems, the wake–sleep centers of the brain, the growth, reproductive and thyroid hormone axes, and the gastrointestinal, cardiorespiratory, metabolic, and immune systems. (1, emphasis added)
Inadequate or excessive stress reactions are linked to a massive array of both physical and behavioral problems.
- Physical: Asthma, exzema, migraines, low or high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, indigestion, diarrhea, constipation, obesity and Type II diabetes, sleep disorders, panic attacks and psychotic episodes. In children, it may be related to stunted growth. In women, osteoporosis.
- Recent research is placing greater emphasis on the role of stress in cardiovascular disease.(2)
- Emotional: Anxiety, depression, mental errors, loss of sex drive, OCD, alcoholism, etc.
Dr. Chrousos argues that stress response hormones were designed for limited use (e.g., see dinosaur, release hormones; lose dinosaur, stop release). In the modern environment in which stressors operate continuously over a long period of time (e.g., the bad boss), long term release of these hormones can have profound negative effects on the functioning of the body.
The portion of the brain that controls emotions is the amygdala. Recent research has shows that severe stressors cause physical chances in the amygdala, most notably enlarging it. (3)
What’s Important to Know:
- Stress (or the stress response) is inside you. It’s not what someone does to you; it’s how you react.
- Some of the stress response is automatic. You don’t tell you body to release hormones. And when someone is chasing you down a dark alley, be grateful that’s true.
- However, you may have some ability to influence how long those hormones are released and the damage your body sustains.
- You can take yourself out of a stressful situation.
- You can “let go” of something that’s happened after it’s over.
- You can use meditation, yoga, tai chi or other tools to moderate reaction to stressors.
Keeping the stress reaction alive when it’s not needed hurts you, not the stressor.
- George P. Chrousos, “Stress and Disorders of the Stress System,” Medscape, 2009. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/704866
Dr. Crousos is professor and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Athens, Greece. With 1,100 articles, he is one of the most quoted doctors and researchers on the planet.
- Marlene Busko, “Study Links Stress-Related Amygdala Activity to Future CVD Events,” Medscape, 13 January 2017. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/874435
- Megan Brooks, “PTSD May Be Physical, Not Just Psychological,” Medscape, 21 July 2017. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/883251