Have you ever come out of an interview / exam and 'nerves' got the better of you and your mind went blank when you went to answer questions? Have you ever had an argument with someone and wished you could take back what you said? Have you ever thought about having the courage to get your point across with colleagues / line manager / employer?
One of the reasons some of these examples can happen, is because you are not aware you are in the 'fight or flight' response that our bodies go into when we get stressed or in a stressful situation.
What is a stress response - the technical stuff?
The stress response is the physiological response to an event or situation, also known as a stressor. The main nervous system involved with stress is the autonomic nervous system which is divided into the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system manages the glands, stomach, heart, lungs, and blood vessels and is the unconscious part of us as we do not need to be consciously aware of how we breathe, pumping our hearts with blood etc. We are usually in the parasympathetic nervous system, as this is when we are in a relaxed state (Palmer S & Cooper C, 2013).
However, when a perceived threat occurs, the ANS triggers the SNS to deal with the threat. The stressor activates the thought / behaviour and sends messages around the brain to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus decides whether the stressor is an acute (short-term) or chronic stressor (long-term) (Palmer S & Cooper C, 2013).
How can stress affect my everyday life?
In the example of suppressing your voice and not getting your point across to others, the hypothalamus would still activate the fight or flight response by releasing noradrenaline and adrenaline from the adrenal medulla (the middle of the adrenal glands, situated on top of the kidneys) which would increase heart rate and blood pressure.
The purpose of this, is that you have the necessary resources to deal with the initial stressor. Generally, in this state you tend to react rather than respond for example, saying things you wish you could take back or suppressing your thoughts and feelings (Palmer S & Cooper C, 2013).
What are the long-term affects?
However, if you continue to supress your voice and consequently, your relationships with others deteriorates and the stressor continues, the hypothalamus recognises this as a chronic stressor and will send a message to the pituitary gland (located in the brain) which releases a hormone called, acetylcholine (ACTH), which releases sugars and fats, also known as cortisol, from the adrenal cortex (the outer layer of the adrenal gland).
The purpose of this is that it increases mental activity and concentration; increases heart rate and increases strength of the skeletal muscles. In times of no stress, this response is beneficial as it releases energy into the body, particularly when we are exercising.
Subsequently, long-term stress can have detrimental effects on the body as it begins to suppress the immune system which can lead to Chronic Heart Disease (CHD); Diabetes; Cancer; Depression and Anxiety which can then lead to mental health breakdown.
In addition, the first signs of stress could be developing multiple colds, cold sores and mouth ulcers (Palmer S & Cooper C, 2013). The psychological signs could be if you maximise or minimise situations, such as reacting negatively to someone leaving their socks by the washing basket but minimising for instance, saying that you don't mind that your partner forgot your wedding anniversary.
So is stress psychological or physical?
I would argue that It's both. Everything you do has either a psychological or physiological impact whether it's positive or negative not only on yourself but those around you. It's what you choose to do that matters. By reacting will have negative short and long-term effects and by consistently responding will have positive short and long-term effects.
How to manage stress
This all sounds scary. Can I reverse the effects of stress? Yes you can, research shows that by being consciously aware of how our body feels, we can resume PNS function much quicker by practicing dealing with the threat in a positive way, such as relaxation techniques; conscious breathing exercises; removing ourselves from the situation (Palmer S & Cooper C, 2013) and responding when you are calm; working on changing your thoughts and beliefs with support; diet and exercise to name a few. Subsequently, the effects of stress can be reduced, managed and reversed.
Palmer S & Cooper C, 2013, How To Deal With Stress, Creating Success. Kogan Page Ltd: London