What If the Dog Chased You Forever?
Stress in the modern age
“Stress” has become such a buzzword these days. Nowadays, talking about stress is not only a convenient conversation starter but a valid excuse for that awkward social gathering you want to avoid.
We complain about how stressed we feel everyday but do we actually know what stress is?
What is stress?
The definition of stress is not set in stone; researchers spell it out in many different fonts. Hans Seley introduced the concept of stress to the scientific world in the 1930s. Since then, the definitions for stress have multiplied. In Stress, Catecholamines, and Cardiovascular Disease, David Goldstein explains stress as,
“A condition where expectations, whether genetically programmed, established by prior learning, or deduced from circumstances, do not match the current or anticipated perceptions of the internal or external environment; this discrepancy between what is observed or sensed and what is expected or programmed elicits patterned, compensatory responses.”
In his statement, Goldstein provides us with two clues regarding the nature of stress. First of all, he suggests that we have certain expectations about the way life should turn out and that these expectations can be genetic or environmental in origin. Secondly, our perceptions of the situation at hand may either parallel our expectations or go against them. We start experiencing stress when the gap between our expectations and perceptions widens. In such a situation we may feel underprepared or incompetent to deal with the situation we find ourselves in.
Stress and the stressor
Anxiety, fear, anger, exhaustion, elation, bliss…Your experience of stress need not be negative. For some reason, we have come to associate stress with an unpleasant and a “bad” thing that we want to rid ourselves of. On the contrary, it is our perception of the stress-or that exhausts or motivates us, not the stress reaction.
To reiterate, stress does not cause damage by itself; it is the stressor, the situation that elicits a physical and emotional stress response that in turn influences our ability (and to some extent willingness) to confront the stressor.
Stressors can be environmental, psychological and/or physical in origin. How the body reacts to and copes with stressful events depend on the hormones released and the organs affected. Our bodies also get different hormonal signals depending on the duration of the stressor.
It is a sunny day and you are briskly walking in a park. It is early in the morning so not many people are around. Having walked in this park many times in the past, you know you have nothing to be afraid of so, you keep on going.
All of a sudden a dog comes running behind you, barking. Bam! Your stress response is activated and you run away to an apartment nearby. Once you make it to somewhere safe, you take deep breaths, shake it off and you are back to normal.
The dog scaring you is a short-term stressor that triggers a host of hormones such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol to be rapidly released into your bloodstream. Your heart beats faster, your pupils dilate, digestion turns off, and the activation of the stress response prepares you to fight or flee (or freeze) to get out of the threatening situation as fast as possible. Once the threat disappears, however, the body goes into a relaxation response and resumes normal function.
What if the dog chased you forever?
Most of our stressors today are social and/or psychological in origin. Unemployment, economic hardship, college debts, loss of a loved one, marriage and raising children can all count as modern day stressors. In a sense, it seems as if the dog keeps chasing you.
Encountering stressful events day in, day out depletes the resources that our bodies need in order to perform their best. When the body/mind cannot relax, vital organs are harmed.
Chronic stress may:
- Damage the inner lining of blood vessels, triggering cholesterol/plaque buildup in arteries
- Disrupt the natural wave-like contractions (peristalsis) of the digestive muscles
- Increase gut sensitivity to acid – heartburn anyone?
- Change the composition and function of gut bacteria
- Increase appetite
- Increase susceptibility to disease through suppressed immune function
- Impair memory and decision making ability
- Trigger headaches, fatigue and even hair loss
- In short, a healthy stress response is crucial for surviving short-term threats. However, it becomes damaging to our bodies when it is constantly “on.”
- But the good news is that when you have insight into the whispers of your body, you can take the necessary steps to recognize and handle your stressors in a way that suits your needs.
How does stress affect you?
Next up: Psychological impact of stress!
- 1. Myslivecek, J. (2015). The basis of the stress reaction. Current Science, 109, 716-726. http://www.currentscience.ac.in/Volumes/109/04/0716.pdf
- 2. Vitaliano, P. P., Ustundag, O., Borson, S. (2016). Objective and subjective cognitive problems among caregivers and matched non-caregivers. The Gerontologist. DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnv690
- 3. http://dos.ku.edu.tr/sites/dos.ku.edu.tr/files/brochures/en/stress_0.pdf