Stress is a common psychological complaint in the modern world. However, it is important to recognize that there is a neurological basis to this complaint. The human nervous system evolved in the prehistoric period; however, it still responds to modern complaints, such as traffic and work pressures. In order to understand what stress does to the body, it is important to understand its neurological basis. When it becomes apparent that the body’s response to stress can be good or negative, an individual can better learn to control this response in the body.
Stress can be good in small doses. It allows a greater level of performance, heightened mental awareness, more physical energy and increased stamina for a period of time. Good stress, or eustress, places the body in a temporary position in which extra demands are required. The body’s stress response helps a person meet these demands. For instance, a large presentation at work results in a release of stress hormones. This stress response gives the individual extra energy to deliver a great presentation (Brock University).
However, chronic stress or harmful stress can properly be called distress. This type of stress wears on the individual and weakens the immune system. It also has a host of other negative health effects, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, abdominal fat accumulation and others. This is when stress continues for a lengthy period of time or is an inadequate response to situations that should not be considered stressful (WebMD).
It is important to understand why these adverse outcomes can develop. This requires an understanding of the nervous system in the body. The nervous system has two modes in which it operates. One is the somatic nervous system. This is the one we consciously control. A person tells his or her body to walk or to talk. However, a large portion of our nervous system is not within our control. This is the autonomic nervous system. A person can control his or her breathing up to a point. After a period of time, the body will automatically take control over this again. This is true for blood pressure as well. An individual cannot tell his or her body what blood pressure to reach. The vast majority of bodily functions is under the control of the autonomic nervous system (Ophardt).
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions as well. The parasympathetic nervous system is the one normally in control. This one lowers blood pressure, lowers heart rate, increases peristalsis and results in a relaxed state of mind. The other division is the sympathetic nervous system, often referred to as the “fight or flight response.” This one is activated in periods of stress. It increases heart rate, increases blood pressure, increases respiratory rate, decreases peristalsis, increases blood glucose and releases cortisol. Cortisol helps to turn off the body’s immune system. All of these activities are necessary for the body to fight or to flee from a threat. However, if they are activated on a continuous basis, the overall effect on the body is harmful (Encyclopedia Britannica).
If the body is placed continuously in a period of alert status, the body consistently functions with higher blood pressure and heart rate, putting stress on the cardiovascular system. In addition, the high blood sugar levels can lead to the onset of Type II diabetes. Long-term cortisol release can result in the individual becoming sick with many colds and other infections. The individual may also put on abdominal fat in response to the cortisol. Overall, these are harmful for the body. This is why the body is not meant to function in a state of constant alert status. The alert response was developed for humans to fight or to flee from predators and other serious risks. While work may place demands on a person, it should not result in a continuous state of sympathetic response. If it does, it is slowly killing the person. Once a person understands why stress is harmful, the person may be more willing to take appropriate steps to manage stress (Harvard Medical School).
- Brock University. “Eustress versus Distress.” 2010. 15 March 2014. Available at: http://www.brocku.ca/health-services/health-education/stress/eustress-distress
- Encyclopedia Britannica. “Autonomic Nervous System.” N.d. 15 March 2014. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/577947/sympathetic-nervous-system
- Harvard Medical School. “Understanding the Stress Response.” 2011. 15 March 2014. Available at: http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2011/March/u
- Ophardt, C. “Nervous System: Overview.” Elmhurst College. 2003. 15 March 2014. Available at: http://www.elmhurst.edu/~chm/vchembook/661nervoussys.html
- WebMD. “Stress Management.” 30 May 2013. 15 March 2014. Available at: http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/stress-management-effects-of-stress