“I am stressed” – we often hear people say this nowadays. However, stress is not an issue to be taken lightly, since excessive or prolonged pressure may not only have an impact on our psyche but can also lead to serious or even life-threatening conditions. Chronic stress can, for example, lead to a heart attack, diabetes, seriously weaken your immune system or result in severe digestive disorders.
From a developmental perspective, stress is in fact simply a physical reaction to a situation that we individually perceive as challenging; stress is absolutely subjective. If I have the feeling that the modern-day equivalent to a saber-toothed tiger is coming round the corner, this triggers an alarm in my brain. The hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline are immediately released, and the hormone cortisol is then released after a delay. This leads to physical reactions such as:
- Increased circulation and a faster heart rate
- Higher blood pressure
- More rapid breathing
- Increased energy metabolism
- Muscles draw on stored energy reserves
- Increased oxygen production (brain and muscles)
- Interruption of digestion (I need my energy for other things…)
The result: When I find myself in a threatening situation, I am ready for fight or flight. The human body is remarkable: When we are in stressful circumstances, a series of chemical reactions ensures that we are fully able to act. At the same time, those functions that are not essential for our survival are suppressed. The brain receives more energy and our muscles become tense. Our level of attention, decision-making speed and memory are improved.
The perils of sustained stress
You may be asking yourself: So what is the problem? One-off stress situations from which our body can recover are not an issue. The stress hormones are broken down and we can recuperate. However, it has become almost normal in today’s fast-paced world that we experience one stress situation after another – meaning that our bodies can no longer recover properly. Above all, cortisol, which is released with a delay, cannot be broken down sufficiently and remains in our body – with devastating consequences for our physical and mental health and our ability to function:
Heart: Stress increases the risk of dangerous deposits forming on the walls of blood vessels. This leads to a higher risk of a heart attack or stroke. In addition, there is a risk of us suffering chronic high blood pressure when we experience constant stress.
Blood sugar: Cortisol reduces the effect of insulin, which is responsible for regulating blood sugar levels. The pancreas compensates for this effect for a prolonged period by releasing more insulin. However, at some point, it is exhausted – greatly increasing the risk of diabetes.
Immune system: In an acute stress situation, the immune system is stimulated for a short time but the delayed release of cortisol then suppresses it so that I have more energy to act. If the exposure to stress lasts too long, the body’s own regulation of cortisol levels ceases to function. New cortisol is constantly being released, leading to the permanent suppression of the immune system. Since the immune system and the nervous system are interconnected, a poorly functioning immune system also has a negative impact on the nervous system.
Muscles: When we find ourselves in a stressful situation, our muscles tense up so we are ready for fight or flight. Chronic stress therefore leads to muscle tension in the back and neck (sometimes with associated headaches), and occasionally also to a feeling of tightness in the chest.
Digestion: Stomach cramps occur in an acute stress situation. Over time, the intestinal mucosa become more permeable, making it easier for pathogens to penetrate them. In a threatening situation, the digestive system shuts down because it is not essential for our survival, and over time it ceases to function properly.
Brain: As mentioned above, the brain can no longer regulate cortisol levels during prolonged periods of stress. Consequently, more and more cortisol enters the bloodstream and remains in the body. You can have your cortisol level measured by means of a saliva test if you want to know how much cortisol is in your body. In addition, during chronic stress, the body’s own anxiety center in the brain, the amygdala, becomes more dominant. As a result, the areas for rational thinking shrink and self-doubt, negative thinking and anxiety increase. Experience shows that negative thoughts have an influence on whether the outcome of some diseases or operations (e.g. HIV, certain types of cancer, recovery from bypass operations) is better or worse. A stimulated amygdala also has an influence on your quality of sleep. My many years as a stress coach have shown that sleeping disorders and chronic stress always go hand in hand. I have never had any stress coaching clients who didn’t also suffer from disrupted sleep.
It is logical that the severe health-related consequences of stress – as described above – also reduce our ability to function and impact on our productivity at work. I will explain the exact form this takes and its impact on the success of a business in my next blog.
P.S.: If you want to find out more about the most frequent external (caused by outside factors) and internal (self-inflicted) stress triggers, please read my earlier blog post: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2016/08/23/what-is-stress-anyway/ For further information about symptoms that can help to diagnose stress at an early stage and what companies and individual managers can do to help prevent employee burnouts, please read: https://www.stressandbalance.ch/en/2016/05/31/burnout-what-can-i-do-as-a-manager/
© Claudia Kraaz