The secrets of stress: can it have a physiological impact?

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From time to time, everyone feels the natural response of stress. The human body commonly induces a stress reaction in situations of pressure, for example, when running for a bus or tripping over. Stress is unique to everyone and, as individuals, we all experience different triggers and varying magnitudes of it.

Personally, I feel most stressed when faced with the prospect of public speaking – or worse, Zoom breakout rooms. My twin, however, feels her stress peak when thinking about her degree workload.

This type of stress is known as acute stress, classified by the cameo role it plays in our daily lives. It is acute stress that is beneficial, motivating us to reach summative deadlines and to study for important exams. It will probably come as no surprise that university students are one of the most stressed demographic groups in the UK. Following a National Union of Students (NUS) survey in 2015, it was revealed that stress affects 87% of the UK student population.

However, not all stress is advantageous. Stress that lasts indefinitely, known as chronic stress, can be mentally and physically detrimental, causing the body to stay alert in response to no perceivable danger. Over time, an individual can grow numb to chronic stress and thus fail to recognise the weight of their problem – to great consequence.

So, why is it so critical to seek help for chronic stress? In the wake of 2020, NUS claims that “over half of students’ mental health is worse than before” – signifying an unwelcome rise in students with chronic stress.

Remaining on high alert for extended periods of time can lead to significant strain on the body

While these figures are daunting in regard to mental wellbeing, regrettably they pose a threat to physical health, also. This is due to the physiological side effects chronic stress places on the body. When confronted with danger, the body will induce a ‘fight-or-flight’ response, triggered almost instantly. First, the threat situation witnessed is construed into a signal which is passed to the hypothalamus, known to be the control centre of the brain.Upon stimulation, the hypothalamus can then command the sympathetic nervous system – a region of the autonomic nervous system that influences involuntary responses.

Adrenal glands are then stimulated to release adrenaline; resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen intake. Adrenaline further causes pupil dilation, redistribution of blood and changes to metabolism. All of these actions work to hone the senses and maximise energy in preparation to face the perceived danger. But what happens if there is no perceived danger? After a stress response is triggered it tends to wane when the danger situation has subsided. However, with chronic stress the brain will continue to perceive a situation as threatening even if it isn’t.

Thus, the body will remain in its alerted state as previously induced by the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Remaining on high alert for extended periods of time can lead to significant strain on the body. A consistent increase in heart rate and high concentrations of adrenaline in the blood can lead to high blood pressure and inflamed blood vessels.

This leaves an individual with greater susceptibility to strokes and heart attacks. Additionally, through metabolic changes brought about by the stress response, such as limiting digestion, individuals may find they have changes to eating habits, regular stomach pains or constipation.

It is clear that biological and mental health have an intrinsic link

Chronic stress, arguably, has the most deleterious effects on the immune system. Regardless of the immunological threat associated with a pandemic-causing virus, the immune system is with little doubt one of the most important organ systems in the body. By protecting the body from harm inducing substances and disease, the immune system consequently protects and maintains function of all other organ systems. In the 1980s, researchers at Ohio State University College of Medicine found that medical students’ immunity decreased significantly when they were subjected to three days of exams.

With only a few days of stress causing the immune system to decline, what could chronic stress do to the immune system? In short, the impact of chronic
stress on the immune system is devastating. Scientists at the American Psychological Association concur, declaring that “chronic stress, through too much wear and tear, can ravage the immune system.”

Stress impairs the immune system, causing a decline in the production of lymphocytes which are responsible for immunity and recognition of disease. What’s more, stress causes the degradation of inflammatory immune responses leading to autoimmune disorders. From these physiological impacts, it is clear that biological and mental health have an intrinsic link. By blurring the lines between mental and physical health, chronic stress highlights just how critical it is to seek recovery.

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