If you have ever experienced stress-related chest pain, you know that stress can be frightening. It may surprise you to hear that the symptoms of stress can actually be helpful.
Wait a minute…
Helpful? Are all the stress-related maladies you may have experienced actually helping you?
No, I am not suggesting that your headaches, back pain, shaking, and nausea somehow help you function. Let’s talk about the difference between chronic stress and the acute stress response.
When a physical danger occurs, the body needs the fight-or-flight response to survive. For example, if you step into the street and see a car rushing toward you, the stress response allows you to have the strength and energy needed to leap out of the way. This is the acute stress response: an immediate, short-term, necessary response that allows the body to take quick action to respond to a threat.
So what is the problem with stress?
Vander, Sherman, and Luciano (2001) note that “psychological stress, particularly if chronic, can have deleterious effects on the body” (pg 731). If stress is prolonged and repeated, causing the sympathetic nervous system to activate often over time, this can contribute to the development of diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure). The increased cortisol associated with stress “can decrease the activity of the immune system enough to reduce the body’s resistance to infection” and can “worsen the symptoms of diabetes because of its anti-insulin effects, and it can cause increased rate of death of neurons.” (Vander, Sherman, and Luciano, 2001, pg 731).
Over time, when the body experiences the stress response, but does not react physically in response to danger, these negative effects begin to appear. This is known as chronic stress (the bad kind of stress). The way the body behaves during the stress response is not meant to be normal, everyday body functioning; it is intended to be used to respond to danger or noxious physical stimuli.
Think about the fight-or-flight responses the body displays in response to danger: muscles tense up, ready for action. The heart beats faster, preparing the body for physical exertion. Digestion and other functions of internal organs are slowed down so the majority of the blood flow can be directed to the muscles.
If there is physical danger, your body is ready to respond to save your life.
If no immediate danger is present, you may feel tense and “jittery,” experience trembling, or have an upset stomach (remember, the digestion process was interrupted) for a while, but soon the cortisol, epinephrine, and other hormones dissipate and these stress symptoms wear off.
No big deal.
The problem is when the stress response occurs often over time, that is, when stress is chronic. Lasting stress starts to interfere with the way the body is meant to function. That’s when the physical symptoms of stress begin. Physical symptoms are usually the first warning sign that stress is starting to become overwhelming.
Chronic stress causes a number of physical symptoms. Some common symptoms of stress are:
– neck or back pain
– digestive problems
– changes in appetite
– changes in sleep
– shaking or trembling
– muscle cramps or tension
Emotional symptoms, such as feelings of hopelessness, irritability, and anger are common stress symptoms. There are also behavioral symptoms, like isolating oneself. In fact, stress can have a multitude of symptoms that interfere with many aspects of life. These symptoms of stress do not help you, and they can actually be quite harmful and debilitating over time.
The signs of stress can be quite similar to symptoms of anxiety. Read more about anxiety symptoms here.