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Stress

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Stress

People face many challenges during their day that we could describe as stressful. Being late for work, missing the deadline for an assignment, or receiving bad news are all possible causes of stress, and our bodies must find a way to deal with these situations. Long ago, the threats we faced were often life-or-death situations, and stress responses were critical to ensuring our survival.Today, such drastic physical reactions are not as helpful, but they still have a place in our society. Problems occur when this stress becomes chronic. Stress still affects our daily lives today. It is important to be aware of the different aspects of stress and how it affects our body and mind.

Stress is a biological and psychological change that occurs in the body in response to negative stimuli, events or threats. There are different types of stress based on how long symptoms last and how frequently stressful episodes are experienced. Stress is associated with various physiological and physical effects on the body.

Examples of situations in which people may experience stress include daily life, e.g., a divorce, an injury, a move to a new location, or the workplace, e.g., deadlines, difficulty completing tasks, strain in work relationships. These examples are referred to as stressors.

Stress Example of a stressor workload StudySmarterA moderate amount of workload as a stressor, Pixabay

The symptoms of stress

The way our bodies respond to stress is different for everyone, but some of the most common symptoms of stress are:

  • Headache.

  • Chest pain/heartburn.

  • Weight gain/weight loss.

  • Fatigue/sleep problems.

  • Tension in the body.

  • Stomach problems, e.g., difficulty digesting food.

  • Mood swings, e.g., irritability.

  • Anxiousness.

The types of stress

There are different types of stress. The type of stress experienced depends on how often the individual is exposed to the stressors and how long the stress symptoms last.

  • Acute stress occurs quickly but does not last long, such as during a job interview.

  • Episodic acute stress occurs when someone suffers frequent episodes of acute stress.

  • Chronic stress the stress symptoms last for a long time and occur constantly, e.g. in a divorce.

Type of stress and related health issues

The type of stress someone experiences is associated with health problems.

  • Acute stress although it causes physiological changes in the body, such as increased heart rate, this type of stress has no lasting effects on the body.

  • Episodic acute stress exposure to acute stressors has been linked to certain health problems, such as panic attacks, high blood pressure, weight gain, headaches.

  • Chronic stress constant stress can lead to serious health problems such as heart disease, heart attacks, gastrointestinal problems, and mental illness.

What happens to the body when we are stressed?

When we experience stressful situations, our body’s physiology changes in response. If this happens frequently and the physiological symptoms last for a long time, they can cause physical illness.

Pathway activation during stressful experiences

Two different pathways are activated when we experience stressful situations: the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) system and the sympathomedullary pathway (SAM).When we experience stressful situations, the hypothalamus is activated, activating the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland secretes a hormone responsible for the production of cortisol. We will discuss the role of cortisol as a stress hormone in the following explanations.

In stressful situations, the hypothalamus also activates the adrenal medulla; this region works as part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). This region causes the release of adrenaline, which is responsible for the “fight-and-flight” mode we enter when stressed. Activation of the adrenal medulla results in increased activity of the sympathetic nervous system and decreased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which is known as the SAM pathway. The role of adrenaline in a stressful situation will also be discussed in the next section.

Pathways, SAM & HPA, StudySmarterHPA system and SAM pathway activation process, Sharon Thind - StudySmarter

Stress hormones

In stressful situations, the body secretes adrenaline. This hormone is responsible for the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Adrenaline is the cause of the increase in heart rate and blood pressure that is likely to occur when we are stressed. The purpose of this hormone is to prepare our bodies to cope with or run away from a situation. Being constantly stressed is demanding on the heart as it has to work hard to pump more blood/oxygen through the body. This can damage the heart and the overall function of the cardiovascular system.

Cortisol is a hormone that is released when we encounter stressors. Cortisol ‘shuts down’ systems needed in the body to cope with the stressor and prevents cells and hormones involved in inflammatory responses from being released.

The body needs a balanced amount of cortisol to function properly. Too much cortisol can lead to:

  • Immunosuppression chronic stress causes cells to become resistant to cortisol. Cortisol is less effective at preventing cells/hormones from triggering inflammatory responses, thus compromising immune system function.

  • Too little can lead to:

    • Fatigue, muscle weakness, weight loss and low blood pressure.

How do we measure stress in psychology?

Psychological research examining stress typically uses self-report scales and physiological tests to measure the frequency and intensity of stressors and their effects on physical changes in participants.

Measures used to investigate stress self-report scales

Self-report scales:

  • The Social Readjustment Rating Scale lists potential stressors to which values are assigned (a numerical value indicates how stressful the stressor is).

  • Respondents must indicate how often and which stressors they have experienced in the past year or expect to experience in the near future.

  • The Hassles and Uplift Scale respondents must rate negative and positive things that happen in their daily lives. The scale was developed to determine how everyday annoyances affect health, such as traffic or losing things.

Physiological tests:

  • Skin Conductance Response is an objective method of measuring sweat, which the sympathetic nervous system regulates.

  • This system activates when we are stressed.

  • A higher skin conductance response indicates a high level of emotional arousal, such as stress.

How can we combat stress?

Since stress over a long period of time can lead to serious illness, those affected must try to find effective ways to cope with stress. One can cope with stress, for example, through drug therapy, stress inoculation therapy (SIT), or biofeedback.

Therapy

Drug therapy is sometimes used to treat people who have suffered from chronic stress for a long time or who have mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. The goal of drug therapy is to reduce the physiological symptoms of stress. The different types of anti-stress medications are:

  • Benzodiazepines slow down the activity of the central nervous system.

  • Beta-blockers minimise the activity of adrenaline and noradrenaline.

Various forms of therapy have been developed to help people cope with stress, including:

  • SIT teaching people how to manage their stress and how to cope with stress, such as using a therapist to teach them how to interpret events in a positive way.

  • Biofeedback uses technology such as the EEG (electroencephalogram - measures brain activity), etc., to help the patient recognise when they are stressed while learning and using relaxation techniques. When the patient experiences that the relaxation techniques reduce their stress symptoms, the likelihood of using them during subsequent stressful events increases (operant conditioning).

Stress Coping with stress through meditation StudySmarterA woman relaxing by meditating in nature, Pixabay

Stress - Key takeaways

  • Stress is a biological and psychological change that occurs in the body in response to negative stimuli, events, or threats.

  • There are three types of stress: acute stress, episodic acute stress, and chronic stress.

  • The HPA system and SAM signalling pathway activate when we encounter stressful situations.

  • Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones released when we encounter stressful situations.

  • Self-report scales (e.g., the Social Readjustment Rating Scale and the Hassles and Uplift Scales) and skin conductance response tests are used to detect stress.

  • Drugs, SIT, and biofeedback methods are used to combat stress.

Frequently Asked Questions about Stress

Common signs of stress are: 

  • Headache.

  • Chest pain/heartburn.

  • Weight gain/weight loss.

  • Fatigue/sleep problems.

  • Tension in the body.

  • Stomach problems, e.g., difficulty digesting food.

  • Mood swings, e.g., irritability.

  • Anxiousness.

Stress can be managed through drug therapy (benzodiazepine and beta-blockers), stress inoculation therapy and biofeedback.

Stressors cause stress, such as work-load, divorce, deadlines, injuries. 

Stress is a biological and psychological change that occurs in the body in response to negative stimuli, events or threats.

Stress can contribute to it, although this rarely happens.

Final Stress Quiz

Question

What is stress?

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Answer

Stress is a biological and psychological change that occurs in the body in response to negative stimuli, events, or threats.

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How does acute stress differ from episodic acute stress?

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Answer

Acute stress occurs quickly but does not last long, while episodic acute stress occurs when someone suffers frequent episodes of acute stress.

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What is chronic stress?

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Answer

Chronic stress is when stress symptoms last for a long time and occur constantly, e.g. in a divorce.

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Question

What is a stressor? 


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A stressor is a negative stimulus, event or threat that causes a stress response.

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What is immunosuppression?

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Answer

Immunosuppression is when chronic stress causes cells to become resistant to cortisol. Cortisol is less effective at preventing cells/hormones from triggering inflammatory responses, thus compromising immune system function.

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What are the common self-report scales used to research stress?

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Answer

The Social Readjustment Rating Scale and the Hassles and Uplift Scale.

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Which system/pathway releases adrenaline?

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Answer

Sympathomedullary Pathway (SAM).

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Which system/pathway releases cortisol?

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Answer

Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA).

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Which hormone is responsible for ‘fight-or-flight’?


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Answer

Adrenaline.

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What does SIT stand for?

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Answer

Stress Inoculation Therapy.

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How do beta-blockers work?

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Beta-blockers work by reducing the activity of adrenaline and noradrenaline.

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How can stress be managed?

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Answer

Stress can be managed through:

  • Drug therapy (benzodiazepine and beta-blockers).
  • Therapy (Stress Inoculation Therapy and Biofeedback).

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What do SIT and feedback therapies both have in common?

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Answer

They both have aspects of the cognitive approach in their treatment.

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How does chronic stress affect the cardiovascular system?

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Answer

Being constantly stressed is demanding on the heart as it has to work hard to pump more blood/oxygen through the body. This can damage the heart and the overall function of the cardiovascular system.

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Question

Which nervous system regulates sweat? 


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Answer

The Sympathetic Nervous System.

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