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What is Stress?

Stress is mental or emotional pressure exerted on someone by others, by situations or by themselves. This pressure is part and parcel of everyday life and is not necessarily negative.

Positive stress

Positive stress provides us with the energy to take risks, to tackle new projects, to confront demanding situations that we know need our conviction and expertise. Positive stress empowers us to climb a mountain, change a tyre, walk out on a stage or write a letter. Positive stress puts the zing into life and fuels our passion for delight and adventure. Stress only becomes harmful when it begins to exceed our ability to cope.

Negative stress

Hans Selye, a famous endocrinologist who pioneered work on the stress response, defined stress as the body's nonspecific response to a demand placed on it. Negative stress occurs when we feel that we do not have the skills or resources to meet that demand. If this demand continues or is frequently recurrent, stress may become chronic.

Chronic stress

Chronic stress is very common. It essentially means that the nervous system is on constant alert as though danger were ever present. Optimally your body is in a state of internal balance where all systems function smoothly. However, stress releases a complex cocktail of hormones which readies your body for action and the physiological effects may include:

  • The brain releases endorphins to relieve pain
  • Heart rate increases and heart increases its strength of contraction to pump more blood
  • Blood pressure rises
  • Digestion slows so the blood may be diverted to muscles
  • Salivation and mucous secretion decreases
  • Pupils dilate so that you have a more sensitive vision
  • All of your senses - sight, hearing, smell, and taste - become more acute, ready to identify any threats
  • Sweating increases to flush waste and to cool down the body
  • Blood clotting increases to prevent blood loss during physical threat
  • Sugars and fats are released into the blood stream to supply fuel
  • Adrenaline and other hormones are released into the bloodstream to provide energy
  • Muscle tension increases to prepare for action in the shortest time
  • Bronchi dilate, allowing for more air into the lungs
  • Breathing gets shallow and faster

Once the demand, the threat or the situation is over, the body should return to its state of normal equilibrium and the physiological effects should diminish. However, when stress has become chronic, the body loses its ability to return to normal, and exhaustion may result. This is caused by the depletion of the body's resources and a loss of the ability to adapt, and may have long-term effects on the cardiovascular system, the digestive system or the immune system.

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  • Original idea: Roger Crabtree
  • Research and Text: Lynn Collins
  • Website Design: Anne Hicks
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