How Chronic Stress Can Produce Disease
Stress is used to refer to uncomfortable emotional experiences that may be accompanied by predictable physiological, behavioral and biochemical changes in individuals. Stress is usually caused by how a person perceives the circumstances that they are facing and how their body reacts to their thought processes based on these perceptions. Stress can affect anybody and may ultimately result in both psychological and or physical health issues.
A lot of research has been carried out to investigate the impact of stress on health. Chandola, Brunner and Marmot (521),for instance, found out through their study that stress factors from daily life are directly linked to heart disease.Seyle’s theory gives an explanation on how chronic stress may ultimately lead to illnesses in the body. Seyle who developed the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) (Rice 23) states that this GAS may be the reason why chronic stress comes with so many health problems. According to this theory, stress disrupts homeostasis and thus alters healthy bodily functions, In the process of developing the GAS, Seyle recorded changes in the adrenal, thymicolymphatic and the intestines. This revealed three distinct phases of stress development and these were: the alarm reaction, resistance stage and the exhaustion stage.
Under normal circumstances, organisms function within a particular level of homeostasis. Self-regulatory mechanisms and problem solving skills help organisms to adapt to routine stress factors and stress (Rice 24). However, an alarm is triggered in organisms following situations where the stressors or stress factors exceed their adaptive mechanisms, and this usually the onset of the alarm stage. During this stage the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenalcortical (HPA) axis is activated. Generalized stimulation of the ANS happens during the initial shock phase of the alarm stage reactions and this is characterized by a non-specific breakdown of resistance and the organism suppresses sympathetic nervous system activity. This shock phase may last up to 24 hours depending on the intensity of the stress factor as well as how vulnerable the affected individual is. This is followed by the counter-shock phase under which the individual may fight or take flight depending on the strength of the individual and whether the stress factor persists or both aspects.
During this phase, the body reacts by releasing catecholamines through the sympathoadrenal medullary system occurs, and this may result in increased respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, perspiration and alertness among other things. Additionally, the body also secretes corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) during this phase and this stimulates the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which normally regulates the release of corticoids. Corticoids can cause negative reactions such as peptic ulcers, gluconeogenesis and decreased immune inflammatory reactions among others. Corticoid hormones are syntoxic in nature and may reduce sensitivity to the stressor pathogens in question or even encapsulate them in inflammatory tissues hence facilitating their coexistence. When this happens individuals may experience varied symptoms such as headaches, palpitations or racing heart and dysphagia. Other additional symptoms that individuals may complain of include: muscle tremors, joint pain, intestinal cramping, dysmobility and feelings of lightheadedness (Rice 25)
Individuals who survive the alarm stage will subsequently experience the resistance stage and this is usually because they manage to establish opposition against that particular stressor. However, under such circumstances resistance to other stressors is less than standard. As the individual establishes full resistance to the stressor during this stage, there is dramatic reduction of symptoms experienced during alarm stage as this stage phases out. Resistance is an attempt by the organism to survive through a carefully balanced use of the body’s catatoxic and syntoxic defense mechanisms under which the organism and the stressor are able to coexist. During this stage, body tissues adapt to intensify their characteristic functional activity so that they can transcend the stressor.
If the organism is unable to recover and return to the initial state before the alarm stage was triggered, they undergo the exhaustion stage. During this stage, there is heightened endocrine activity and high levels of circulating cortisol begin to negatively affect the immune, circulatory and digestive systems. This results in the depletion of the body resources and permanent damage may happens to the individual owing to the wear and tear or death or both.
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Chandola Tarani, Brunner Eric and Marmot Michael. “Chronic Stress at Work and the Metabolic Syndrome: Prospective Study”BMJ. 332. 521(2006) doi. Web. 3 Nov. 2013. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.38693.435301.80>
Rice H. Virginia. “Theories of stress and its relationship to health.”Sage Publications, nd. p. 22- 41. Web. 3 Nov. 2013 <http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/44175_2.pdf>