What is stress?

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Stress can be defined as feeling under pressure in simple terms. However, it can be defined biologically and psychologically as a response experienced when encountering a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with. Stress allows an individual to be motivated, increase productivity and improve performance. However, prolonged stress can cause detrimental effects on one’s health by inducing a number of changes such as disturbed sleeping patterns, appetite loss and difficulty concentration. A stressor is a stimulus that causes stress.  There are many different types of stressors. Generally, any event in life that a person finds threatening, difficult to cope with or causes excess pressure can be a potential cause of stress.

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Examples include bereavement of loved ones, examinations and work deadlines. Others stressors in life include workload, job security, scrutiny from superiors. This can cause individuals to display a number of symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, losing interest in daily activity as well as noticing health deterioration

What happens during stress?

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When the body is stressed, the hypothalamus is activated to release corticotropin releasing factor(CRF).  CRF acts on the anterior pituitary to release adenocorticotropin(ACTH). The ACTH acts on the adrenal cortex to mediate a long term response to stress by secreting corticosteroids.  An example of a corticosteroid is cortisol. Cortisol has a number of roles in the body which include, glucose, protein and lipid metabolism, resisting stress and inflammation. The hypothalamus can also activate the adrenal medulla through the sympathetic nerves. The adrenal medulla mediates short term responses to stress by secreting noradrenaline and adrenaline. Adrenaline leads to the arousal of the sympathetic nervous system and reduced activity in the parasympathetic nervous system. Adrenaline brings changes such as decreased digestion, increased sweating, increased pulse and blood pressure.

How the body deals with stress

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The general adaptation syndrome was described by Hans Selye who recognized that stress was a major cause of illness. He described three important responses the body has to cope with chronic stress, he named them alarm, resistance and exhaustion. The alarm stage occurs when a stressor is identified by the body to cause activation of the hypothalamic pituitary axis to releases cortisol and the sympathetic response to cause release of adrenaline. The second stage is resistance where the body will try to adapt to the stressor for a limited amount of time. The final stage is exhaustion, this is where the body’s resources have been depleted and cannot maintain normal autonomic and immune function and is therefore at increased risk of developing an illness.

Effects of stress on ill health

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Continued stress can have its effects on a number of different organ systems. The cardiovascular system is at particular risk. Stress can increase the likelihood of patients developing hypertension, accelerating the rate of atherosclerosis or precipitating a myocardial infarct, all of which are risk factors for developing heart disease. Stress has also been linked with weaker immune system and slow wound healing because cortisol levels are elevated. Previous stress researches undertaken on the carers of Alzheimer’s patients and individuals who have recently undergone a divorce, separation or bereavement were more likely to develop an infection, have slow wound healing or were unable to inhibit the growth of tumours due to their ongoing levels of stress.

Coping strategies for stress

There are many different ways of dealing with stress. The effectiveness of the method employed by the individual depends on their characteristics, circumstances and the type of stress they are experiencing. Lazarus (1991) and Folkman (1984) suggested two ways of coping with stress which include emotion-focused and problem-focused.

Problem-focused strategies aims to target the cause of stress in order to directly reduce the stress by removing or reducing the stressor. Problem-focused strategies include taking control of stressful situation by changing the relationship between the individual and the stressor for example by removing the stress. Other techniques include information seeking where the individual tries to understand the stressful situation better so that they can implement strategies to avoid those situations. They may also decide to evaluate the negative and positive options of dealing with the stress.  Generally problem-focused strategies are a good way of dealing with stress because it deals with the actual cause of the stress and can often provide a long term solution.

Emotion-focused strategies reduce the negative emotional responses associated with stress. These include anxiety, depression, embarrassment, fear and frustration. These techniques are useful and are the only option available when the stress is outside of the individuals control. Examples of these strategies include ignoring the problem in the hope that it will go away, distracting oneself by undertaking activities such as watching TV or eating or preparing for the worse possible outcome. Using emotion-focused strategies does not provide a long term solution and is less effective than problem-focused method. A study performed by Epping-Jordan et al found that patients with cancer who used avoidance strategies such as denial deteriorated more quickly than those who accepted their condition.

Importance of social support in stress

A social support network may be vital for an individual to have during times of stress because surrounding yourselves with other people can have a positive effect on an individual’s mental well-being. A social support network can include friends, family members and peers.  Previous research has shown a social support network can be beneficial to an individual for a number of reasons. An individual may have a sense of belonging because spending time with others can fight off loneliness. The individual may value themselves and have an increased sense of worth because if people want to be around them it may display to an individual that they are a good person because people want to be around them. During times of stress, the network may provide the individual a feeling of security if the people in the group are able to offer information, advice and guidance on the stressor. Therefore it is important that individuals receive social support from his family, friends and peers.