Lost the ability to enjoy life? This is probably stress. Do you feel tired already in the morning? Also stress. Hair fall out? It's all about stress. Despite the fact that the first may be caused by mood disorders, the second - a lack of vitamin D, and the third - a change in the regimen of taking oral contraceptives, it is often the notorious stress that is blamed for all the problems. He is credited with answering all questions in almost more situations than "charming intestines." But the reality is not that simple. Stress overload, of course, can affect the physical and mental health of a person and disrupt the functioning of the body, provoking a whole range of problems - from diarrhea to loss of sexual desire, but their mechanism of action is somewhat more complex.
Text: Marina Levicheva
What is stress
Burning deadlines, speaking in front of a large audience, quarreling with a loved one - all this, of course, is stress (also: acute stress, short-term stress). And while situations can be very different, the same thing happens in the body every time. From the point of view of physiology, stress is a surge of adrenal hormones adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol (as well as some others), caused by the reaction of the hypothalamus, a region of the diencephalon, to external stimuli.
It is worth saying that in general, adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol are designed to help the body in a "fight or flight" situation, that is, potentially life-threatening. Thus, adrenaline and norepinephrine increase the heart rate, increase blood pressure, intensify sweating and provide a powerful burst of energy. Cortisol, which you’ve almost certainly heard of as the main stress hormone, temporarily increases the release of glucose into the bloodstream, thereby the body further strengthens its energy potential, useful just in order to "beat" or "run". But if you do not need to fight or flee, hormone levels return to normal after a while.
It is important to understand that life without stress is impossible, because even things like waking up in the morning or trying not to be late for somewhere are accompanied by the release of adrenal hormones, and therefore represent a variant of acute stress. Problems begin when there are too many hormonal surges and what experts call chronic stress.
Is there chronic stress
With this in mind, it turns out that the average person's day consists of many small events associated with the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol. Isn't this chronic stress? No. This is the most common stress. Until about as long as the body effectively copes with it.
Experts agree that stress becomes chronic (or long-term) when the body is constantly in a state of physiological arousal. This condition can be associated with a single long-term stressor (eg, nursing) or with a large number of short-term stressors that do not leave the autonomic nervous system time to return the main indicators to rest.
Studies show that chronic stress has a depressing effect on the immune system, increasing the risks of viral and some other infections, and also contributes to the development of metabolic syndrome associated with diabetes mellitus, hypertension and obesity. Not to mention the fact that chronic stress does not have the best effect on a person's mental health.
Why people react to stress differently
Stressful experiences are very individual.And if for one person the trigger is only something really serious, for example, the death of a loved one or a car accident, then for another - an already torn package or being late for work.
Unfortunately, researchers do not yet have an unequivocal answer to the question of why one person reacts sharply to even small stressors, while another holds on to the last. But scientists at least know that there are some gender differences in responses. And it is speculated that some people may be more genetically susceptible to stress.
How stress affects the body and brain
Cardiomyopathy is a disease in which the structure of the heart muscle is disturbed, which can lead to serious complications such as heart failure. Among other factors, cardiomyopathy can also be caused by severe stress, in which case it is also called broken heart syndrome. By the way, 90% of cases are in women. In 2017, Chinese scientists found that stress causes and sustains inflammation in the body. And given how many conditions are based on inflammation, it becomes clear how destructive it can act.
In addition, stress changes the way the brain works and even its structure. A team of scientists from Yale University found that exposure to stress leads to a decrease in the amount of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for self-control and emotion. This makes us more vulnerable to further exposure to intense stressors. That being said, persistently high cortisol levels appear to be associated with impaired memory and lower overall brain size.
Is it possible to die from stress
Even a very strong shock does not carry a real risk of instant death if we are talking about a healthy person. On the other hand, a gradual decrease in the functionality of all body systems (what was mentioned above), obviously, shortens the life span. There is evidence that high levels of stress - but only when combined with a mood disorder - increase the risk of premature death by an impressive 48%. That is, the answer to this question still cannot be unequivocally negative.
Finally, there is cold stress - a critical drop in body temperature as a result of prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. If cold stress is not dealt with as quickly as possible, it poses a threat not only to health (hypothermia, frostbite, hypothermia), but also to life.
Stress and cancer
Thinking about stress as a risk factor for cancer, scientists are in no hurry to make assessments and draw conclusions. Despite the fact that chronic stress weakens the body's immune function, which potentially makes us more vulnerable not only to cold and flu viruses, but also to uncontrolled growth of mutant cells, there is still insufficient evidence.
For ethical reasons, experiments with human participation are practically impossible here, with the exception of patients with diagnosed cancer who have given consent to observation. In one such study, it was found that stress provokes a deterioration in the condition of patients and leads to a higher level of markers of disease progression in the body. Another study suggested that there was some link between stress at work, increased inflammation and tumors. Experiments in mice, in turn, have shown that stress can promote metastasis. But this is still not enough for final conclusions.
However, one thing is not being questioned by the expert community. Scientists agree that chronic stress can lead to habits such as overeating, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption - and their carcinogenic potential has long been proven.
Stress and stomach ulcers
“Don't be nervous, you'll get an ulcer” - everyone heard this phrase.The physiological changes that accompany stress can indeed affect the condition of the gastrointestinal tract, causing cramping, heartburn, or nausea, but certainly not peptic ulcer disease. The main cause of stomach ulcers is Helicobacter pylori bacteria; the disease can also contribute to the regular intake of certain medications.
At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that stress can cause the development of more serious intestinal disorders. A 2015 study, for example, suggested that chronic stress can lead to irritable bowel syndrome. More research is needed to be sure, though.
Do stress management techniques work?
"Effective stress management techniques" - sounds like something from a seminar by Tony Robbins. However, stress can be managed by reducing its negative effects on the body. The first thing to consider is physical activity that promotes the production of endorphins, distracts from problems (what the Mayo Clinic experts call motion meditation) and improves mood. If you do not exercise on your own, but in a fitness club, give preference to group exercises - according to some reports, they cope with stress a little better. Also, keep in mind that yoga can be as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Of the less obvious ways to deal with stress, walking in the fresh air should be noted. And it is better not in the city center, but somewhere closer to nature, which is also capable of relieving the accumulated tension. If you have pets, it makes sense to spend more time with them: pet therapy lowers heart rate and blood pressure, that is, copes with the effects of stress hormone activity - and even in such a pleasant way.
Does stress have any benefits
Despite all of the above, stress can be beneficial. In which cases? For example, in the format of small daily stress, which the body perceives as a threat to survival, which forces it to adapt to the proposed circumstances, renewing cells and possibly extending our lifespan. Stress also appears to help cope with bad news by adequately processing and absorbing the information received.
And no, stress doesn't always change the brain for the worse. Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, for example, are quite confident that short-term stress can "tune" the brain and improve its performance by forming new nerve cells. And if you yourself perceive stress as something positive and motivating, it can contribute to faster implementation of plans and projects.
Photos: store.wallpaper, Leonid - stock.adobe.com, Schlierner - stock.adobe.com