The effects of chronic stress can be serious

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Hearing someone say "I'm stressed out", or "He's under a lot of stress these days" are almost as common as observations about the weather.

The fact is, stress has always been a part of people's lives - it is the experience of adapting to change, and the only thing we can be sure will remain unchanging in this world - is change. But because change is happening at an ever-increasing rate these days, the negative effects of stress are becoming more a part of our everyday experience.

Everything that happens is a cause of stress - things like sudden physical danger, falling in love or getting a new job - not to mention having your job disappear are some of the big ones. Other things that cause stress are less obvious - like you own thoughts.

Not all stress is dangerous, but problems start when the stress level in your life becomes unmanageable - or to put it another way - when stress becomes chronic. That's where I'll start - by distinguishing between acute and chronic stress.

Acute stress is when you have an experience of stress, even extreme stress, then it diminishes or goes away. Examples might be, speaking in public, having a near-miss on the highway, or playing in that big game. Chronic stress is a high level of stress that doesn't go away. And it's not so much that the cause of the stress doesn't go away - it's the effects on the person that don't go away.

That's when health problems could result - like tension headaches, increased susceptibility to colds or depression. The stress-related problems that people suffer are too numerous to go into here, but if you accept the claim that unrelenting stress is a serious health problem in our culture, then you get the big picture.

Here's one explanation about why chronic stress is such a problem. It begins with what has become known as the "fight or flight response". Simply put, this response is the chemical changes that happen in any organism when it is faced with a real or imagined threat to its safety.

The most commonly used example is when our ancestors were faced with the threat of a sabre-toothed tiger - their metabolisms automatically prepared them for the decision about whether their best defence would be to flee to the nearest tree, or stand and fight.

We experience the same thing when we face a real or imagined threat.

Our brain sends an alarm to all parts of the body stimulating the nervous system to concentrate on one thing - survival. The heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, blood pressure and so on, all increase.

Blood flow is directed away from the hands, feet and digestive system to the larger muscles that will provide the power to fight or run.

The hands and feet get cold and the stomach is full of butterflies. At the same time, adrenaline is secreted to contribute to the power needed to face the threat.

While the body is concentrating all its energy and resources on dealing with the danger - again, it doesn't matter whether the threat is real of imagined - some important functions that keep the body healthy begin to shut down - things like the immune and digestive systems, and the functions that promote reproduction, growth and tissue repair.

This last point is important because the fact that these vital functions shut down is not really an issue when the danger passes and the body returns to normal in a relatively short time. Like when the sabre-tooth tiger wanders off, or the ceremony is over and you're married.

What becomes a problem is when these functions are inhibited by a panic response that doesn't turn off. When a person lives day after day in this distressing state of alarm, it's a real problem. But what is the antidote for this panicky, anxiety-causing fight or flight response that won't turn off?

It's called the "relaxation response", and I'll focus on it next week.