Stress has become the public enemy number one. All messages alert us to the dangers it contains. Exposure to stress is known to precipitate the onset of different psychological disorders, from anxiety and panic attacks to depression.
However, there are different types of stress and they are not all necessarily negative. In fact, positive life events that excite us, such as a move, the arrival of a child or a new work project, can also generate stress.
What is stress exactly?
In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates already referred to a “disease” such as stress that combined elements of pathos (suffering) and ponos (relentless work). However, the concept of stress as we know it today arose in 1956, from the hand of Hans Selye. This endocrinologist established the differentiation between the concept of stress and the stressor, to distinguish between the stimulus and our response.
Thus, the definition of stress refers to a psychophysiological response that is activated when a situation exceeds our usual coping resources. When we feel overwhelmed by a physical or emotional challenge, our body and mind react by mobilizing all their resources to help us respond quickly and adaptively to the situation. However, if stress is maintained over time, it would end up depleting our resources, in a way that could cause physical and psychological damage.
The mechanism of action of stress
In fact, it is an evolutionary mechanism that activates us to better cope with a potential danger. Stress activation usually follows a repeating pattern:
• A stressful event occurs and the autonomic nervous system triggers an immediate response.
• The stress response activates the sympathetic nervous system, flooding the body with hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine.
• These hormonal changes sharpen the senses, increase heart rate and blood pressure, speed up breathing, and throw the brain into a state of hyperconsciousness.
• The part of the brain responsible for emotional calm and physical relaxation, the parasympathetic nervous system, is bypassed.
• This “neurological cocktail” of hormones and over-activation of brain areas causes a burst of energy and concentration, also triggering emotions such as anger, aggression and anxiety.
When we are faced with a real danger, this reaction is very useful because it allows us to survive, especially in dangerous environments such as those of the past. However, our “fight or flight” brain chemistry has remained a basic feature of psychological processes and is activated even when we don’t need it.
If we perceive that a situation is stressful, this reaction occurs, regardless of whether that event represents a real danger or not, the release of hormones and the state of hyperconsciousness are the same. That means it is possible to experience intense physical symptoms just by thinking of something stressful. In fact, Selye himself stated that “Stress is not what happens to you, but how you react to it.”
What are the types of stress?
Broadly speaking, there are two types of stress: distress and eustress. Distress is the negative stress that we experience when we feel overwhelmed, distressed and tense due to situations that we perceive as negative and threatening.
Instead, eustress is a positive stress that allows us to react quickly and adapt to changes. The problem is that the line between eustress and distress is very subtle and easy to cross. In fact, if eustress situations are maintained over time, they can lead to distress.
1. Baseline stress
Everyday life can be stressful. Dealing with problems at work, obligations at home, social commitments, and family conflicts produce some level of sustained activation over time. It is a basal or underlying stress that we get used to dealing with, and whose level varies from one culture to another depending on the challenges they present, and from person to person according to their ability to deal with those challenges.
An experiment carried out at Radboud Nijmegen University found that relatively high basal stress levels act as a protective factor in a stressful situation, generating a less intense response from the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. That means that exposure to relatively stressful situations can help us develop our coping resources, so that we will not be as reactive.
The word eustress is made up of the Greek prefix eu, which means good. Therefore, it is used to refer to a level of “positive stress”. This type of stress lasts a little, just a few hours or a couple of days, so that it would not trigger harmful psychophysiological responses in the medium and long term.
Unlike distress, which generates anguish and anxiety, eustress energizes and motivates. In fact, it often facilitates a state of focused attention and high energy that allows us to meet the challenge. According to Yerkes Dodson Law, eustress generates an optimal level of anxiety that boosts our performance. The eustress would be responsible, for example, that we can finish a work project on time or that we find the strength in the midst of adversity or the energy to do something that we are passionate about.
• Acute stress
Acute stress is an intense reaction of the body to a threat, whether real or imagined, that can put our physical or psychological well-being at risk. This type of stress occurs suddenly and its level increases rapidly since its main mission is to prepare us for fight or flight.
Acute stress is common after experiencing a critical and unexpected situation, such as a natural disaster, an assault, but also the death of a close person or the loss of a job. This type of stress consumes an enormous amount of physiological and emotional resources, so that, if it is not deactivated in time, it can cause physical symptoms in a short time.
Not only does it create great distress, it often leads to extreme exhaustion. In fact, it often triggers neurovegetative symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and palpitations. In extreme cases it can even cause fainting or reactivate old pathologies.
• Cumulative stress
When the stress level is high and is maintained over time, it refers to cumulative or chronic stress. When we constantly expose ourselves to situations that generate tension and we are not able to free ourselves from the anguish they generate, stress ends up accumulating and triggers a series of physical reactions, such as inflammation, that can cause different diseases. This type of stress often leads to apathy and disorganized behavior. It generates anxiety and worry, plunging us into a loop of negativity and apprehension.
This type of stress is common when we feel that we lose control of our life, or when different negative circumstances are concentrated in a short period of time and we are not able to deal with their emotional impact. In fact, a study conducted at the University of Cambridge found that when the basal stress level remains very high for a long time, generating a sustained increase in cortisol, without being able to relax, it affects the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and leads to depression.
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