What is Stress? What Causes it? What Does It Do? How does it Kill?

What Is Stress? Why Does It Happen? How Does it Kill?


Hans Selye was a pioneering, albeit later controversial, Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist. He conducted scientific explorations into the response of organisms to stressors. To explain his point, Hans wrote of a rabbit and a turtle that were married. Unlike the rabbit that lived life flitting and flopping from point-to-point, nibbling when it needed nourishment before moving on, the turtle was slower and more methodical; it preferred making its way from one point to the next more purposefully and with greater appreciation of nuance and detail. It’s important to remember both behaviors are perfectly normal and healthy - they’re simply different. One day the rabbit commented to the turtle, “We never go anywhere or do anything together anymore.” The turtle, feeling guilty, decided to do rabbit things for a night to appease his partner. One evening they went bar-hopping and did all the things rabbits do. The turtle, however, was miserable the entire time; unhappy to the point of feeling physically unwell because rabbit stuff simply wasn’t part of his nature. This is an example of what happens when one is asked to be different from his or her true nature. When this occurs, we experience stress and our body and mind responds to that stress. When you’re in an environment or asked to do something that’s not in your nature, you become stressed too. Selye contended that, by being untrue to your nature, the stage is set for stress to occur.

So, were Selye’s arguments about stress accurate? Selye’s theories made reasonable arguments about the relationship that exists between human nature and stress. Right or wrong, his work has been adopted and expanded upon by employers that are increasingly matching the nature of employees to the demands of specific jobs. The benefits are indisputable and have resulted in increased employee motivation, performance, and contentment. When forced to function beyond the comfort and familiarity of our nature, stress is a natural response and can arise in any number of situations ranging from detrimental or objectionable environments and incompatible personalities to misguided expectations and perceptions. Selye offered insight and clarity you can use to build upon in your own personal stress management strategy.


A closer look.


So, what causes us to become anxious and overstressed? Each of us reaches points where life becomes too much to handle and our bodies respond to these situations as a threat. However, what’s happening behind the scenes and is it serious? The answer is simple: it can be. What we do know is stress is always the result of an event.

The foundations of stress come to life when we’re unable to achieve a desired goal or objective for some reason. When this occurs, our brain enters a state known as living inaction or living death. You know this more colloquially as burn out. Burn out occurs when unaddressed anxiety, stress, or fear are present. Even in their most benign forms, anxiety, stress, and fear not only define life’s experience but can manifest themselves in dangerous ways.

But what is stress? In 1971, Jeffrey Gray, a British psychologist, defined anxiety, stress, and fear within the context of a single human emotion simply referred to as stress. We use the term stress to include anxiety, stress, and fear. In its simplest form, an emotion is our reaction to any event or experience you confront. Fear is an emotional form that stimulates our desire to terminate, avoid or remove ourselves from a real threat, whether external or internal. Anxiety, on the other hand, is our response to potential, irrational or imaginary danger. Because it’s a combination of both fear and anxiety, stress describes our desire to terminate, escape, or avoid a negative event or experience, regardless of whether it’s imminent, real or perceived. While deviations from Gray’s definition exist, his description provides a good starting point.

What causes stress? Stress is always precipitated by an event. Positive events make us feel great and don’t cause stress responses. Negative events, on the other hand, cause us to experience anxiety, stress, or fear. We refer to negative events as stressors.

So, what makes an event negative? The answer is subjective. What may be stressful to you may not be to me. Some people find snake encounters exciting in a good way; most do not. The difference is your perception of the encounter. We know burn out occurs once you’re no longer achieving desired goals. When an event keeps you from attaining a goal, it’s perceived as negative; otherwise it’s considered positive. Having your car in the shop for repairs and unavailable to do other things is a negative event, or stressor, because not having your car keeps you from achieving your goals. The same is true for a crying child, loss of a job, an incompatible partner, and so forth. In short, when an event causes you to lose control of anything or renders you unable to meet your goals, that event becomes a stressor. Your body responds to stressors in terms of anxiety, stress and or fear. These are natural human responses and quite useful in most situations. However, sometimes our responses become unhealthy.


Preparing for battle.


Once our body experiences a stressor, it prepares itself for one of three responses: freeze, fight or flee. You may be more familiar with these as your Fight or Flight Response. When triggered, your fight or flight response prepares your body and its systems for action.

  • Your adrenal gland goes into cortisol production mode. Cortisol is your body’s alarm system - your body’s primary stress hormone. Cortisol stimulates the release of other hormones and neurotransmitters like epinephrine and norepinephrine. It also stimulates the production of substances that inhibit the normal breakdown of epinephrine and norepinephrine.
  • Pupils dilate for increased visual acuity.
  • Blood vessels constrict to increase blood pressure. Your heart is now pumping five gallons a minute as compared to one.
  • Blood vessels to the heart expand to facilitate increased blood return capacity to the heart.
  • Fat from fat cells and glucose from the liver are metabolized for quick energy.
  • Blood vessels in the skin, kidneys and digestive tract are constricted to shut down digestion in preparation for your next moves.

Once the fight or flight response is triggered, the entire process is controlled by your hypothalamus, an almond-sized part of your brain that’s arguably the most important part of your endocrine system. By alerting the pituitary gland to release certain hormones under various conditions, the hypothalamus ensures the internal processes of your body are balanced and working properly as normal fluctuations occur. The process of keeping your body in balance is called allostasis.

The hypothalamus is a fascinating part of your brain. When the front of your hypothalamus is stimulated, you become calm. This is known as your parasympathetic nervous system response. When the back is stimulated, your mobilization processes are stimulated. This is known as your sympathetic nervous system response. Together, these responses are known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS. Having your sympathetic nervous system response activated for only 30-90 minutes can result in a 300% increase in enzyme and impulse activity that lasts from 12 to 72 hours and up to 2 weeks in many cases. That’s an enormous response for the relatively small amount of hormone release due to an even shorter event.

The physical, psychological, and cognitive impacts of stress often last far longer than the events that precipitate it. Stress propagated by an overbearing boss or misbehaving child can impact your physical and cognitive performance and health adversely for weeks. The problem is stressors are cumulative – they build on each other. The cortisol released by one stressor may be impacting your system when another stressor triggers another cortisol release. There are no limits here. This is why cortisol is known as the death hormone.

We'll discuss cortisol and much more in our next post.


In a nutshell...


Understanding stress, what it is, what causes it and how it kills is an essential part of managing it more effectively. It’s easy to understand, but more than 99.5% of all American’s don’t. However, without this knowledge, health and wellness is impossible.

This is part of a new education series by Life Environments that introduces you to stress in actionable ways.

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