How Stress Affects the Body

How Stress Affects the Body

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Stress reaction has almost become synonymous with "fight-flight" response. If you ask a stress expert about the effect of stress on the body, he or she would most likely explain how, over time, the body begins to wear out by constantly fighting with, or fleeing away from sources of perceived danger.

Actually, there is not one but three major components of the stress response: (1) armoring (2) fighting or fleeing and (3) surrendering/submitting.

In the animal world, all the three stress responses can be identified by observing how different animals react to an approaching adversary. For example, hard-shell animals, such as turtles, tortoises or porcupines, will brace up to the challenge by stiffening up or raising their exterior as their armor.

Animals such as lions and tigers fight. They will go on the offensive and attack before they are attacked. Deer and antelope flee.

When small animals are about to lose, they surrender and lie down in a state of submission. They curl up, fold themselves and make every effort to appear much smaller than their actual size. Thus, through the process of surrendering and submitting, the vanquished signal to their conquerors that they have quit fighting and are no longer a threat.

Human beings, in response to a perceived threat or danger, also display the three patterns, armoring, fighting/fleeing and submitting, often, simultaneously. For example, to protect ourselves from a real or imagined threat, we immediately don our "armor" by stiffening up various groups of muscles, especially the shoulders, neck and the face. Muscles, ligaments, and tendons are the stuff the body armor is made of. Let's refer to it as the "musculo-skeletal stress response."

The reflex action of fighting or fleeing puts the body into a high gear. The brain sees it as an "emergency" situation. Many hormonal and neuro-chemical changes occur outside our awareness, but such accompanying features as a racing heart or huffing and puffing do claim our attention. Blood and oxygen are supplied most efficiently, particularly to arms and legs, so we can fight or run as rapidly and as effectively as possible. Let's refer to this as the "cardiovascular stress response."

The third major component of stress response, surrendering and submitting, involves shutting off or suspending some of the body's functions temporarily since they are not critically required in an emergency situation. Immune function also can be temporarily suspended as it does not play a crucial role in fighting or fleeing. Let's refer to it as the "immune dysfunction stress response."

Here are the three major stress responses for a quick reference:

1. Musculo-skeletal stress response derived from the tendency to armor and shield the body from the perceived danger.

2. Cardio-vascular stress response derived from the tendency to fight with or flee from the perceived object or situation of danger

3. Immune dysfunction stress response derived from the tendency to suspend activities, not critically required for fighting or fleeing.

Now that we have identified the major stress responses, let us see how they relate to specific stress-related disorders.

Chronic musculo-skeletal stress response may play a role in headaches, chronic pain in the neck, shoulders or lower back, TMJ, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, to name a few. Chronic stress causes poor posture, which in turn can cause multi-joint chronic pain.

Chronic cardiovascular stress response may play a role in high blood pressure, heart disease, migraine headaches, colitis, ulcers, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, out-of-control hunger and bulimia, to name a few.

Chronic immune dysfunction stress response may play a role in allergies, asthma and other respiratory diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, cancer, common cold and flu to name a few.

According to a recent study published in U.S.A. Today, "unmanaged stress" accounts for nearly 8% of the nation's total health expenditure, or nearly $20 billion.

A lot of people know how to turn stress on but they don't know how to turn it off. So, they remain stressed long after a stressful event has come and gone. Learning to turn stress off is one of the most important skills one must acquire in order to succeed and stay healthy.

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Copyright 2001, Mind Publications 


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