The many flavors of chronic stress
In a healthy stress response, levels of stress hormones rise to meet the demands of the situation and fall once it is dealt with.
Chronic stress can cause wear and tear on the stress response system (and others) in more than one way.
1. If we have repeated activation of the stress response over
long periods of time, then there is wear and tear on the stress response
system. It was not designed to be constantly in use like this.
i.e.: The brakes on your car will last longer than the breaks on a taxi that is constantly driving in town.
2. Normally, if we are exposed to the same stressors, our system can get used to them and we don’t respond as much. This is called habituation.
The wear and tear of chronic stress can lead to an inability to
habituate to stressors. The stress response system goes into high gear every time the same stressor is present.
i.e.: A shy person gets a promotion that requires him/her to speak in public every week.
colleague at work may snap at you for the smallest little thing. Perhaps
this person is under chronic stress related to another stressor!
3. The wear and tear of chronic stress can result in stress
hormones levels failing to go back to normal after stress. When this
happens our other body systems also stay in high alert! (e.g. blood
pressure, blood sugar)
i.e.: One may feel their hearts pumping, have sweaty palms, and be on edge long after they were called into the boss’ office.
4. In some individuals, the wear and tear of chronic stress can
result in an inability to respond normally to stress in the future. We
need a good stress response to stay healthy! The body’s stress response
system simply goes on strike or burns out and we don’t have enough
stress hormones around.
i.e.: In Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Burnout, many individuals have lower than normal stress hormone
Chronic stress not only has detrimental effects on our physical
health, but also has a large impact on mental health. Depression and
burn-out are commonly linked to chronic stress. But even before one
reaches a state of depression or burnout the first thing to happen is
Being faced with repeated stressors we often start to anticipate them
before they even happen. This anticipation alone causes the repeated
release of stress hormones. This of course means more wear and tear.
| TAKE HOME MESSAGE
|On the spot stress can be good for us, problems arise when the stress
response system is called into action too often. When we repeatedly
release stress hormones our other systems stay activated (e.g. high
blood pressure and blood sugar). These body systems do not fair well in
constant alert mode and they can start to break down. Psychologically,
chronic stress also causes wear and tear in the form of increased
anxiety, depression, and burnout. The key is to identify stressful
and learn to recognize the physical signs of stress. In fact, there are
many ways in which we can cope with stress on a daily basis and in our
lives in general. How do we cope with stress?