Stress 101(Part 2: Chronic Stress)

As discussed in our last post, stress is an inevitable aspect of life that can have both positive and negative effects on our wellbeing. This week we will look at how repeat exposure to stressors (one or multiple) for an extended period of time can leave us susceptible to chronic stress. It is when stress becomes chronic, that our physical and mental health can be compromised.

Let’s begin with a brief recap of acute stress. The example I gave last week, described an encounter I had with a dog while out running. In this scenario the stressor (barking dog) came and went quickly as did my experience of stress:

My brain decided that I was under threat and initiated the release of stress hormones which gave mea physical and mental boost to react (fight, flight or freeze):

Increased alertness (senses are heightened)·

Breathing becomes fast and shallow (oxygen required for muscles)·

Heart rate increases (to pump oxygen around the body)·

Muscle tension \ Short term strength increases (in preparation to fight \ run)·

Tunnel vision (threat focused, see things in a negative light) etc

The stressor (dog) quickly passed, so no further stress hormones were released and I returned to a state of balance. So far so good, but what happens if the stressor doesn’t just simply disappear. What if we are talking about a pressurised work environment or recurring negative thoughts?

Let’s say I’m preoccupied with a dispute I had with a colleague at work. The thought pops into my head, “I really shouldn’t have said that”. I perceive a threat to my wellbeing (social status: reputation, job security etc) and acute stress ensues. However, the threat doesn’t pass instead a related or identical thought enters my head, “Why can’t I keep my cool like other people?”. Another burst of stress hormones are automatically released into my body.

You can see how repeat exposure to anxiety inducing thoughts and situations can place and keep us in a cycle of stress. In time chronic exposure to stress can lead to a myriad of issues that affect our wellbeing. These issues arise in the following order and are dictated by the frequency and level of stress we experience:

Dysregulation: Sleeping issues, constant worrying, back pain etc

Maladaptive Coping: Overeating, ruminating, social withdrawal etc

Breakdown (Physical\Mental): Depression, heart disease etc

Dysregulation is a result of chronic stress, we then use maladaptive coping strategies to feel better in the short term but this pushes us further towards breakdown. All of this feeds into the stress cycle. Now, if that didn’t cheer you up of a Wednesday nothing will!

Actually this stuff is really worth knowing. If you are not currently overly stressed, great – long may it continue. If you recognise these patterns in yourself, great also! Awareness is the first step in taking back control. We have be aware of the problem in order to change it!

Next week in our final post on the fundamentals of stress, we will start to look at managing and limiting the effects of ‘negative’ stress (even if our objective circumstances are unchanged).

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