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Stress can arise for a variety of reasons. Stress can be brought about by a traumatic accident, death or emergency situation. Stress can also be a side effect of a serious illness or disease. There is also stress associated with daily life, the workplace (Read about "Job Stress"), and family responsibilities. It's hard to stay calm and relaxed in our hectic lives. We have many roles: spouse, mother/father, caregiver, friend and/or worker. With all we have going on in our lives, it seems almost impossible to find ways to de-stress. But it's important to find those ways. Your health depends on it.
The stress response is controlled by a highly complex, integrated network that involves the central nervous system, the adrenal system, the immune system and the cardiovascular system. (Read about "Nervous System" "The Immune System" "The Heart & Cardiovascular System") With acute stress, we quickly notice the event and that feeling of "fight or flight." This response developed to protect us from the charging beast or other dangers. Few of us however face those events on a daily basis. Instead, our stress comes from things we can neither fight nor flee.
Stress sets off a cascade of events, activating chemicals in our bodies. It releases the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which is involved with memory. This may be why people remember stressful events more clearly than they do non-stressful situations.
Stress also increases the production of a hormone in the body known as corticotropin releasing factor (CRF), according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). CRF is found throughout the brain and initiates our biological response to stressors. During all negative experiences, certain regions of the brain show increased levels of CRF. CRF is transported in blood within the brain and in seconds triggers the pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropin hormone (ACTH), also referred to as corticotropin. ACTH then triggers secretion of glucocorticoid hormones (i.e., "steroids") by the adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys. Glucocorticoid hormones play a key role in the stress response and its termination.
Activation of the stress response affects smooth muscle, fat, the gastrointestinal tract (Read about "Digestive System"), the kidneys and many other organs and the body functions that they control. The stress response affects the body's regulation of temperature; appetite and satiety; arousal, vigilance and attention; mood; and more. Physical adaptation to stress allows the body to redirect oxygen and nutrients to the stressed body site, where they are needed most.
Both the perception of what is stressful and the physiological response to stress vary considerably among individuals. These differences are based on genetic factors and influences that can be traced back to infancy.
Mild stress may cause changes that are useful. For example, NIDA says stress can actually improve our attention and increase our capacity to store and integrate important and life-protecting information. But if stress is prolonged or chronic, those changes can become harmful.
Stress can take on many different forms, and can contribute to symptoms of illness. Common symptoms include:
We all deal with stressful things like traffic, arguments with spouses and job problems. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says some researchers think that women handle stress in a different way than men.
During stress, women may tend to care for their children and find support from their female friends. Women's bodies make chemicals that are believed to promote these responses. One of these chemicals is oxytocin, which has a calming effect during stress. This is the same chemical released during childbirth (Read about "Childbirth") and found at higher levels in breastfeeding (Read about "Breastfeeding") mothers, who are believed to be calmer and more social than women who don't breastfeed. Women also have the hormone estrogen, which boosts the effects of oxytocin, according to NIMH. Some researchers say men, however, have high levels of testosterone during stress, which blocks the calming effects of oxytocin and causes hostility, withdrawal and anger.
Everyone has stress. We have short-term stress, like getting lost while driving or missing the bus. Even everyday events, such as planning a meal or making time for errands, can be stressful. This kind of stress can make us feel worried or anxious.
Other times, we face long-term stress, such as a life-threatening illness or divorce. These stressful events also affect your health on many levels. Long-term stress is real and can increase your risk for some health problems, like depression.
Both short and long-term stress can have effects on your body. Research is starting to show the serious effects of stress on our bodies. Stress triggers changes in our bodies. It can suppress the immune system and makes us more likely to get sick. It can also make problems we already have worse. It can play a part in many problems, according to NIMH. Examples include:
Any change in our lives can be stressful - even some of the happiest ones like having a baby or taking a new job. Here are what are considered some of life's most stressful events, according to the National Women's Health Information Center (NWHIC).
Don't let stress make you sick. Often we aren't even aware of our stress levels. Listen to your body, so that you know when stress is affecting your health. NWHIC suggests the following to help you handle your stress.
Doctors used to think that stomach ulcers (Read about "Peptic Ulcers") were caused by stress and spicy foods. Now, we know that stress doesn't cause ulcers - though it can aggravate digestive problems. Ulcers are actually caused by a bacterium (germ) called H. pylori. (Read about "Microorganisms") Researchers don't yet know for sure how people get it. They think people might get it through food or water. It's treated with a combination of antibiotics (Read about "Antibiotics") and other drugs.
All Concept Communications material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.
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