The Science of Stress

When faced with a stressful situation, the body does amazing things to rise to the occasion. But for many, fear, panic, and worry don’t fade away once the tense moment is over. For the 18% of Americans who report their stress levels are extreme, what began as a normal response has turned into a health threat.

By Camille Platt

Gary Brunvoll, DO Chattanooga Center for Women, an affiliate of Women's Health Services
Gary Brunvoll, DO
Chattanooga Center for Women, an affiliate of Women’s Health Services

So, what exactly is stress? Loosely defined, stress is the body’s response to a demand or change. While we tend to associate the word “stress” with feeling overwhelmed, worried, or run-down, stress can often be helpful – particularly as we face the obstacles and challenges of everyday life.
Stress is tied to the body’s instinctive “fight or flight” response. During a stressful event, the nervous system releases a flood of hormones to give our body extra fuel. These hormones boost blood sugar levels and triglycerides, quicken our pulse, tense our muscles, and redirect blood flow to the brain.
Dr. Gary Brunvoll, a physician with Chattanooga Center for Women, explains that in response to stressful situations, our body produces high levels of the hormones cortisol and epinephrine. “These cause you to feel tense as you begin to experience hyper alertness and a rise in blood pressure,” he says.
Good Stress vs. Bad Stress
“A certain level of stress helps you anticipate future events, stay focused, and accomplish your goals,” says Dr. Melisa Couey, a psychiatrist with Parkridge Medical Group Behavioral Health Partners. In small doses, it’s what motivates us to study for a big test, stay focused to throw a game-winning touchdown, or slam on the brakes to avoid a collision. In short, it’s an important short-term response that helps us adapt to everyday demands.
But what if stress lingers in the absence of an actual crisis or taxing event? What if it doesn’t go away and begins to overwhelm you? Then you might be one of the 40 million adults in the United States suffering from an anxiety disorder.
When stress doesn’t fade away on its own, the same chemicals that can save your life in a moment of danger or help you focus in an intense situation can prevent you from functioning in your everyday life.
“Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting about 18% of the population in any given year,” says Dr. Jennie Mahaffey, chief of behavioral health at UT Erlanger Behavioral Health. “If you have an anxiety disorder, your worries become excessive and often irrational. They begin to interfere with relationships, work, school, and your ability to get things done.”
Who Gets Anxiety
Melisa Couey, MD Parkridge Medical Group Behavioral Health Partners, an affiliate of Parkridge Health System
Melisa Couey, MD
Parkridge Medical Group Behavioral Health Partners, an affiliate of Parkridge Health System

There are several risk factors that contribute to someone developing an anxiety disorder. These factors are why two people may experience a similar event but react in very different ways. Research shows that women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety and chronic stress. “This is due to their unique biology as well as environment,” says Dr. Couey. Additionally, genetics, brain chemistry, and personality can all influence whether someone develops anxiety. An estimated 40% of patients diagnosed with generalized anxiety have a close relative with similar problems.
While anxiety can take root without any circumstantial cause, it can also be brought on by the routine demands of work and family or a sudden negative life change like divorce or unemployment. Past experiences or trauma can also influence whether someone develops an anxiety disorder.
Effects on Your Body and Behavior
So how do you know if your anxiety has crossed the threshold from a normal response to stress to something that could negatively impact your health?
The symptoms to look for are fourfold: cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral. Physical symptoms may include headaches, loss of appetite, diarrhea or constipation, muscle tension, trembling, trouble falling asleep, and chest pain.
You may feel irritable, angry, depressed, or have difficulty focusing on daily tasks. Some people with chronic anxiety become socially withdrawn, neglect responsibilities, struggle to remember things, begin overeating or under-eating, or start using drugs, alcohol, or tobacco to relax.
The long-term effects of excessive stress and anxiety on the body are equally disheartening. While short-term bursts of stress are actually good for the immune system, chronic stress and anxiety are associated with high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, and ulcers.
Those who always feel stressed should be aware that their stress can increase risk of heart disease, says Dr. Brunvoll.
“This is because stress makes your cardiovascular system work harder,” he explains.
He points to a 2012 study of over 22,000 women. “Women under high amounts of stress at work were 40% more likely to experience a cardiac event.”
Taking Control
Jennie Mahaffey, MD Chief of Behavioral Health, UT Erlanger Behavioral Health
Jennie Mahaffey, MD
Chief of Behavioral Health, UT Erlanger Behavioral Health

If you suffer from chronic stress and anxiety, don’t let it continue to the point where it severely threatens your health. By prepping your body for peace and finding ways to cope with negative thoughts, you can greatly improve your body’s physical and psychological state. Here’s how to tackle the task:
Identify your triggers. Keep a journal throughout the day of what contributes to your thoughts and moods. There may be a pattern to the people or settings that hurt your progress toward peace. Do what you love. “Find activities you enjoy and take time to do them,” says Dr. Couey. “I encourage people to schedule a day and time at least once each week to do something just for them. Look for things that recharge you and make you feel fulfilled.”
Get face time with a friend. Making eye contact and feeling understood by a peer can slow the body’s defensive response to stress.
Talk to your doctor about how you are feeling. He or she may order tests to rule out other underlying medical conditions, refer you to a specialist, or recommend a medication to bring you relief.
Train your body. Cardiovascular exercise is a great way to teach your body how to deal with stress. Aerobic activities are most effective. The resulting endorphin high can restore your ability to sleep and improve your concentration.
Watch your caffeine intake. Because it stimulates the nervous system, caffeine can trigger an additional release of adrenaline, which you certainly do not need if you are already feeling nervous. Pass on processed foods. Snacks high in sugar and refined carbs will worsen the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Skip the fast food and instead reach for fruits, vegetables, protein, and anything rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Work on improving your sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene by setting a consistent bedtime for yourself and limiting screen time before turning out the lights.
Practice meditation. When the physical symptoms of stress start to set in, get comfortable, focus on your breathing, and don’t let your mind wander to the past or the future. Name the positives in front of you in the moment. Are your children laughing? Is the sound of the rain outdoors calming? Compared to the catastrophic thoughts that cause your unrest, these things are real in your life right now.
Seek out a mental health professional. With the help of a professional therapist or psychologist, you can learn how to work through your negative thoughts and change your reaction to anxiety-provoking input. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps patients with anxiety disorders find patterns in their feelings of fear or worry so they can ease the symptoms over time.

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