How does stress develop?

Stress is a natural physical reaction to mental or physical burdens. The development of stress has biochemical and biological causes, which we will discuss in more detail in the following. Thereby, it should be evident that: Stress as a term is neither negative nor positive – stress should fundamentally be understood as value-neutral, because it concerns stimuli that contribute substantially to the human interaction. It always becomes difficult when the physical or mental adaptation reactions are subjectively perceived as stressful.

Stress leads to an increased alertness of the body, as it prepares itself to utilize more performance. In response to dangerous situations, as an attempt to relax in stressful psychological situations, as a bad presentiment or as any other reaction that a person has learned throughout the course of their life. Hans Selye coined the term in 1936, distinguishing between eustress and distress. Eustress is understood as a necessary, positively perceived activation of the body, whereas distress is a stressful, harmful reaction to requirements that significantly exceed the normal level.

Stress factors, the so-called stressors, are caused by various internal and external stimuli. These can be physical or psychological factors that we are usually unable to control or distinguish. For example, people who have a cold and have to take it “slow” and react differently to certain stress factors than people with a high tolerance for stress, who can utilize their performance reserves even under adverse conditions, where others would have already given up.

The facts: Stressors are the causes of stress, they can be triggered and perceived by various aspects, environmental conditions or factors. According to Selye, who is regarded as a competent physician and founder of stress research, regardless of the type of stressors there are adaptation reactions in the body, which are collectively referred to as adaptation syndrome. This can be divided into three phases: Alarm reaction phase, resistance phase and exhaustion phase.

The development of stress: Understanding the adaption syndrome

The above-mentioned reaction pattern described by Hans Selye, is to be understood as generally applicable and shows the reactions of the body to longer lasting stress factors. It is important to understand: The accumulation of stress factors leads to a short-term increase in the body’s resistance, but can cause physical and mental suffering in the long term and in the worst case can also lead to death.

The three stages of the so-called general adaptation syndrome include:

1. Alarm response phase

The body reacts to acute stress factors by releasing more so-called stress hormones. Its purpose is to provide the necessary energy reserves. Stress hormones are biochemical messenger substances that have prepared humans in prehistoric times for combat or the escape from danger. They are formed in the adrenal gland, and include catecholamines and glucocorticoids.

Adrenaline and noradrenaline, which belong to the catecholamines, are briefly released. The release is triggered by factors such as noise, certain psychological stresses, physical work or similar occurrences. If the stress is only perceived for a short time, the proportion of these catecholamines will be predominant. This explains the increased resistance to such burdens, because the body can draw on additional energy reserves to help master the situation. If, on the other hand, long-term stress situations prevail, an increased release of glucocorticoids will occur. Thereby, adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) will be released, which leads to an elevated release of cortisol. Cortisol inhibits the immune system, it triggers degrading metabolic processes and at the same time has an effect on the blood pressure. Pulse and blood pressure are elevated, while at the same time cortisol leads to a breakdown of proteins in bones and muscles, so that amino acids are released through the blood and processed by the liver. The consequence: The blood sugar level rises.

This is the best way to understand this reaction: Through a suppression of the immune system, especially through an increased inflammation inhibition, the body shifts into a state of increased willingness to perform and activity.

2. Resistance phase

The initially described alarm reaction phase described doesn’t last very long, and after a short time the body will switch to the so-called resistance phase. It tries to reduce the original stress-inducing stimuli, to reduce the stress hormones and thus to lower the current stress level. The aim is to return to a normal state.

Somatotropin (STH) and mineralocorticoids are released, inflammatory reactions increase. This is can manifest through stomach ulcers or similar afflictions.

3. Exhaustion phase

The third and final phase of Hans Selye’s “General Adaptation Syndrome” illustrates the real danger posed by prolonged stress. The factors involved in the development of stress must be determined with the help of Treatments or other aids. Otherwise, there is a high risk of long-term damages. The longer this phase of constant activation of the body lasts, the more likely this will be.

This state of exhaustion is acutely manifested by a diminished thymus gland and lymph glands, whereas inflammatory reactions can lead to the development of stomach ulcers. Long-term stress factors can lead to cognitive, emotional or hormonal damage and impairment, as well as afflictions on the muscular level.

People who are exposed to long-term increased stress levels adapt their mindset to this increased alertness and are prone to only perceiving reality in a distorted manner. They are much more irritable, develop anxiety or show aggressive behaviour. Their insecurity leads to problems in both private and professional life, which can fuel the problem to an even greater degree. The general decline in performance means that those affected are finding it increasingly difficult to carry out their actions efficiently and as they are accustomed to. They are easily overwhelmed by even simple tasks.

Through the persistent exhaustion it becomes increasingly difficult to perceive recovery phases, and to actually utilize them properly. The body and the entire organism need considerably longer to recover. This is due to changes on a vegetative-hormonal level, since the body can switch to the alert mode much more quickly due to the persistent stress situation, which is also perceived much more intensively.

The short version: How does stress develop?

Stress helps people to react better in certain situations and to recognize dangers that can potentially have drastic consequences. However, the longer this condition lasts and the more diverse the factors that cause stress are, the more likely it will be that the affected person suffers, and it will be less likely that he will recover and leave this phase. In the previous section we have schematically described the three phases of the general adaptation syndrome. Here you can again see which reactions occur in the body during the development of stress, and what effects these reactions have.

People who are regularly or permanently under stress have a significantly higher risk of psychosomatic or mental disorders, as well as depression, sleep disorders, skin or gastrointestinal diseases. Stressed people often suffer from high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. Well-being is thus affected in its entirety. A condition that can often only be countered with the help of certain therapies, changes in behaviour and similar measures.

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