That presentation you have to give to potential clients, the family party to organise, the fast-approaching homework deadline: we all experience periods of stress but, once they have passed, our body usually manages to recover. Not every reaction to stress puts your health at risk. “Only when someone is subjected to permanent pressure and the body no longer experiences the naturally alternating rhythms between stress and relaxation does the condition become problematic,” says stress expert Beate Schulze. Chronic stress is harmful to both body and psyche.
Stress symptoms: how stress reveals itself
Physical signs of stress:
- Circulatory problems
- Stomach pain
- Digestive problems
- Sleep disorders
Psychic signs of stress:
- Nervous agitation
- Feelings of helplessness and being overloaded
- Difficulties with concentration
- Forgetfulness or difficulty facing new situations
Reactions to stress: behavioural changes
Added to this is a change in the person’s behaviour which often leads to conflict situations in their relationship and at work: a person under stress reacts irritably and aggressively, is mistrusting, tends to withdraw and doesn’t communicate properly. They also act self-destructively: by not taking breaks, eating quickly and unhealthily, and drinking too much alcohol, for example.
Chronic stress: the consequences
Prolonged stress can lead to long-term illnesses such as cardiovascular disorders, cardiac arrhythmia, heart attacks, diabetes, stomach ulcers, depression or anxiety. The latest findings indicate that the stress hormone cortisol is particularly dangerous.
Anyone feeling physically and mentally exhausted could be showing signs of burnout. It particularly affects people who are dedicated to their work and push themselves to perform. The downward slide towards burnout is a gradual process that the victims themselves often don't notice for a long time. Besides total exhaustion, there are two other typical indications:
- An indifferent, distanced or even cynical attitude towards work, customers or patients.
- The feeling of achieving less and less, even when making an effort. People lose faith in their own capabilities.
Who ‘invented’ stress?
Everyone is familiar with the term ‘stress’. Originally it was used only by physicists, as was the now popular term ‘resilience’.
To describe the result of exposing a material to strong forces so long until it buckles, material scientists came up with a new term: stress. It can also be described as load, strain, endurance or tension. In the 1930s, biochemist and hormone researcher Hans Selye was the first to demonstrate that excessive pressure can also have serious consequences for human beings. He was also the first to use the term stress to refer to humans. Selye (1907-1982) is regarded as the ‘father of stress research’ and developed the General Adaptation Syndrome, which states that when the body is exposed to stressors such as pressure to perform, psychological distress, noise or hunger, its first reaction is to enter a stage of resistance. However, if prolonged, the result can be physical complications or even death.
What is stress?
When exposed to stress, the body activates all its resources to react to the danger. A useful mechanism – provided the alarm stage passes.
“The absence of stress is death. Only the dead have no stress.” This quotation from the founder of modern stress research, Hans Selye (1907–1982), is often heard. It’s provocative but the message is clear: stress is part of life and also has its good aspects. It enables us to tackle difficulties, and gives us those feelings of satisfaction when we achieve something. Eustress is what researchers call stressors that stimulate in a positive way. Today, however, more focus is given to the negative form, i.e. distress, meaning things that weigh us down. There is no objective measure for this. “Each person reacts differently to stress,” says Aurélie Lattion from the scientists’ association stressnetwork.ch. Because stress is a subjective feeling, one person can find it healthily challenging, while another finds it over-challenging.
Unchanged since primeval times
However, what happens to the body when it is exposed to stress is the same for everyone and has remained unchanged since primeval times. If danger threatens, the body instinctively mobilises all its resources to fight or flee (the ‘fight or flight’ response). There are two mechanisms for this: the stress hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin are activated. Among other things, this causes accelerated breathing and heart rates, higher blood pressure and decreased sensitivity to pain. Once the danger is averted, the body stabilises. If the threat remains, the body releases a second dose of cortisol in order to remain ready for action. These are useful and harmless mechanisms – but only if the body returns to its normal state in the immediate future. This is where our forefathers had the better deal, assuming they survived the adventure. Flight or fight scenarios were always followed by phases of rest and regeneration.
For the things that stress us today – pressure to perform and meet deadlines, information overload, trouble at work – we no longer need to exert ourselves physically. "Thus we remain sitting on the energy supplied, mostly quite literally," says the reference book Stark gegen Stress [strong against stress] (Beobachter Edition). If we fail to self-regulate and spend too long on high alert, stress risks becoming chronic - with sometimes massive consequences for our health.