Stress Check

Stress is a normal physiological response of the body when faced with a hostile situation or environment. Stress affects everything and every one. Though the stress factor may be different in different age groups, the outcome is more or less the same. The effects of stress on the body can be categorized into short term and long term effects irrespective of the age groups. When the trigger is repetitive, prolonged or unanticipated, then it becomes pathological. The immediate, transient or the short term effects are the normal physiological responses whereas the delayed, persisting or the long term effects of stress are the pathological responses.

The idea of stress was originally introduced by the Canadian endocrinologist Hans Selye (1978).  Selye identified stress as a generalized physiological reaction that came about when the body was exposed to any kind of extraordinary demand.  The stressor or demand could be physical, environmental or emotional. 

Stress was seen as a reaction to events, situations, or conditions that an individual had experienced in the past and present. Whether the stressor is physical or psychological coping skills are required to eventually help that individual to overcome whatever disruption or insult to their mental and physical system. Generally speaking research indicates that information helps the individual with expectation setting while the factor of time allows for adequate mental and physical preparation.

Reactions to stress takes three forms: emotional, behavioral and physiological.  These factors are typically experienced together in various degrees depending on the individual’s personality characteristic, nature of the stress, and the emotional reaction to the stress.  

Bottom line, when you are stressed regardless of the cause, your body produces neuropeptides that exert a negative effect on the brain triggered by the production of the hormone cortisol, which in turn can affect your health when produced in large amounts.  More stress, the greater the amount of cortisol production.

The effects of stress on the mind, heart, respiratory tract and nervous system have been well studied and documented.  Medical sciences are working on ways to help individuals understand and manage their response to stressors.  Stress disrupts your ability to effectively manage life’s complexity while draining you of assimilation capacity.  This silent killer has the ability to attack the body on many levels.

The effect of stress on the:

Brain – lowers the production of disease-fighting blood cells, which in turn contributes to depression, agitation, anxiety, insomnia and in some cases, short term memory loss.

Face – stress induced over stimulation of hormones, can create lines around the mouth, blemishes on the skin and other effects including dry mouth, jaw clenching and other skin disorders.

Hair – excessive hair loss and some forms of baldness; stress has no effect on hair color.

Eyes – strain, dark under eye circles, temporary blindness and conjunctivitis.

Reproductive Organs – menstrual disorders, recurrent vaginal infections in women, inability to become pregnant; impotence and premature ejaculation in men.

Digestive Tract – can cause or aggravate gastritis, stomach and duodenal ulcers, colitis and irritable colon.

Heart – major contributor to cardiovascular disease and hypertension.

Chest – shortness of breath.

Neck and Shoulders – promotes the release of chemicals into the nervous system that speeds up muscle deterioration.

Back – pain and muscle twitches.

Hands – sweaty palms and tremors.

Source:  The American Institute of Stress, John Hopkins University School of Medicine and National Institutes of Mental Health.

Effects of Short Term Stress

Hans Selye maintained that a body reacts to stressors with a nonspecific sequence of processes that he called the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). When an individual encounters a threat, Selye theorized that the body gets prepared to handle the situation by means of  ‘Fight or flight’ response. The initiation of a stressor unleashed certain functional adjustments within the body. Resources are activated by such physiological changes as increased rate of heartbeat and res perspiration, dilation of pupils, a drop in body temperature, increased perspiration, and release of glucose into the bloodstream. . When the threat no longer exists, the body returns to normal. These immediate, transient effects are the short term effects of stress. This is a physiological response seen in all individuals exposed to stress. The few functional adjustments which are responsible for the short term effects are:

  • Diversion of the blood from less vital to more vital organs.
  • Increase in the heart rate to supply more blood quickly.
  • Increase in the blood pressure to supply blood efficiently.
  • Increase in the respiratory rate to get more oxygen from the atmosphere.
  • Breakdown of glycogen stores in liver and muscle to get more glucose.
  • Formation of more glucose from non carbohydrate substances.

These functional adjustments responsible for the stress effects on the body, manifest themselves with an array of signs and symptoms which include:

  • Palpitation
  • Chest pain
  • frozen shoulder
  • Cold clammy skin with gooseflesh
  • Flushing and feeling of warmth
  • Breathlessness
  • Dry mouth with difficulty in speaking and swallowing
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Aggravation of Peptic Ulcer
  • Loose stools
  • Increased blood glucose levels.
  • Headache, back ache and neck pain
  • Depletion of energy stores
  • Flare up of diseases like eczema, psoriasis, arthritis
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Memory disturbances
  • Sleeplessness
  • Decreased sexual drive
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Outbursts of anger

Effects of Long Term Stress

If the stress persists becoming repetitive, the body keeps secreting the stress hormones cortisol.  Here more intense, longer-acting defensive measures are put in place. The body now experiences stress with extra burden due to the side effects of the persistently high stress hormones. Some irreversible physiological damages of the brain and related physical symptoms . The manifestations could be:

  • Chronic head ache
  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Memory disturbances
  • Heart attack due increased blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol
  • Stroke due to similar reasons
  • Weight loss
  • Exacerbation of allergies including asthma
  • Irritable Bowel disease
  • Ischemic Bowel disease
  • Decreased sexual drive
  • Sleeplessness

Even when the stress factor is absent some of these physical and physiological effects of stress  persist unless steps are taken to treat them.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post traumatic stress disorder is a delayed reaction to an exceptionally stressful situation or a life threatening event where the person feels helpless. After a dormant period the person re-experiences the past traumatic events as ‘flash backs’, or dreams and tries to avoid any stimuli or situation which reminds of the past trauma. The symptoms include:

  • Psychological numbing
  • Amnesia of certain aspects of the stressful event
  • Inability to experience pleasure
  • Isolation
  • Reduced interest in activities
  • Sleeplessness
  • Agitation

Nutrition and Stress

The adaptation of the human body to physical threat, involves the workings of both the hormonal and nervous system.  With the brain and spinal cord acting as central controllers the nervous system receives and integrates information from sensory receptors all over the body. All your senses communicate with the brain the state of both the outer and inner worlds. When danger is perceived on a physiological or psychological level, nerves release neurotransmitters, and glands supply epinephrine and norepinephrine. Every organ of the body is on high alert pushing the metabolism into high gear. These disruptions, hassles, dilemmas, and irritations associated with stress can rob you of nutrients at the same time it’s increasing a need for nutrients.  The psychological strain of stress forces the body to secrete more hormones that speed up metabolism and the turnover of cells while fats are altered and begin to turn rancid. 

Some simple nutritional stress strategies:

>Maintain a regular eating routine.

>Meals should provide adequate amounts of the antioxidant A, E and C which serve as scavengers for free radicals generated by the body.


>Barlow, D. 1988, Anxiety and Its Disorders: The Nature and Treatment of Anxiety and Panic. New York: Guilford.

>Lazarus, R. S., and S. Folkman, 1984, Stress, Appraisal, and Coping: New York: Springer Publishing.

>Jessop DS, Harbuz, MS, Lightman SL. CRH in chronic inflammatory stress. Peptides. 2001 May; 22(5):803-7. Review.

>Michael Olpin and Margie Hessen, Stress Management for Life: A Research-Based Experiential Approach, 2006.

>Alan O. Ross, Personality: Theories and Process, Harper Perennial 2006.

>Frances Sizer and Eleanor Whitney, Nutrition, Concepts and Controversies 9th edition,

Chapter 3: pages 72-73.

>Hans Selye, The Stress of Life, 1978

>Hans Selye, Stress without Distress, 1975

>I. Berczi and Judith Szeleny, Advances in Psychoneuroimmunology (Hans Selye Symposium on Neuroendocrinology and stress) 1994