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Stress is the "wear and tear" the body goes through as it adjusts to the constantly changing environment. Anything that causes change in a person's life causes stress. . Stress can be short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat. This is commonly known as the "fight or flight" response. The threat can be any situation that is experienced as a danger.

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Stress occurs all the time in most people's lives. At some point in their lives, almost all people will go through stressful events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope. Too much stress, however, can seriously affect physical and mental well-being. Stress decreases the quality of life by reducing feelings of pleasure and accomplishment.
Stress affects the body in many ways, including:
  • the release of chemicals called catecholamines from the adrenal glands. These are a group of hormones that include adrenaline and epinephrine.
  • an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, as the heart and lungs work harder. The rate of breathing also increases and the lungs take in more oxygen. The blood flow increases to get the body ready for added demands.
  • dryness of the mouth and throat. Blood flow decreases to areas that are less important for basic survival, including the mouth. This causes dryness of the mouth and difficulty talking and swallowing.
  • cool and clammy skin, as blood flow is diverted to vital organs and muscles
  • slowing down of digestion of food
Long term stress can lead to physical or psychological damage to the body. Stress can cause the following problems:
  • psychological disorders. Chronic stress may develop into more serious problems, such as an anxiety disorder or depression.
  • heart disease. Mental and physical stress is a trigger for unstable angina, which is chest pain due to not enough oxygen reaching the heart. Stress raises the risk for serious heart events, such as heart attacks, which can be fatal. Sudden stress can cause the heart arteries to constrict, causing blockage of blood flow to the heart. People under a great deal of stress are also more likely to have high blood pressure, which can further increase the risk of coronary artery disease.
  • stroke. The high blood pressure which can occur with stress has been linked to higher risk of strokes.
  • increased risk of infection. Chronic stress causes the immune system to become less effective. This leaves a person more vulnerable to viral illnesses such as colds and the flu.
  • digestive problems. Prolonged stress can disrupt the digestive system, irritating the large intestines. This can lead to diarrhea, constipation, abdominal bloating, and cramping. Stress may predispose a person to peptic ulcers.
  • weight problems. The effects of stress on weight can vary. Some people lose their appetite and lose weight. Others develop craving for "comfort foods" such as salty or sweet food, which can lead to weight gain.
  • diabetes. Chronic stress has been associated with the development of diabetes and the impairment of a person's ability to manage the disorder.
  • pain. Chronic pain caused by arthritis and other conditions may be made worse by stress.
  • sleep disorders. it is important for a person under stress to get enough sleep. However, stress may cause trouble falling asleep, or cause the person to awaken during the night or early morning.
  • skin. Stress plays an important role in a number of skin conditions, including acne, hives, psoriasis, and eczema.
  • sexual and reproductive disturbances. Stress can lead to decreased sexual desire and erectile dysfunction, and may affect fertility. Stress hormones have on impact on the hypothalamus gland, which makes reproductive hormones.
When stress does occur, it is important to recognize and deal with it. People handle stress differently. What works for one person may not work for another.
Some examples of ways to help ease the tension from stress include:
  • being physically active. This may relieve the "up tight" feeling that is common with stress. Walking, running, playing tennis, or working in the garden are some examples.
  • talking to someone. It often helps people to share their concerns with others. Talking with a friend, family member, teacher, or counselor can help people see their problems in a different light.
  • taking care of one's body. Getting enough rest and eating well can help increase a person's ability to deal with stressful situations.
  • relaxing. It is important for individuals to balance work with play.
  • practicing deep breathing. Breathing becomes shallow and rapid during episodes of stress. Taking deep breaths can help a person "wind down."
  • getting involved with other people. People may feel better by helping someone else. It is also helpful to establish a support system.
  • making lists. Making a list and eliminating items when they are complete can help make tasks feel less overwhelming. It also lends a feeling of accomplishment.
  • not holding back tears. Sometimes a good cry makes people feel better.
A healthcare professional should be consulted for unmanageable stress. It is important to seek help if stress is causing insomnia, depression, severe anxiety, or affecting a person's ability to function.
When stress becomes overwhelming, different psychological therapies can be helpful. These include identifying sources of stress, changing priorities, changing one's response to stress, and finding methods for managing and reducing stress.
Sometimes, especially in highly stressful situations of a temporary nature such as the death of a loved one, medications can be helpful. However, over the longer term, the risks of dependence on medications, or of substituting medication for other productive steps, must be weighed against the benefits.


Stuart and Sundeen, Principles and Practice of Psychiatric Nursing, 4th edition, 1991

The Merck Manual of Medical Information, 1997

National Institute of Mental Health Stress, [hyperLink url="" linkTitle=""][/hyperLink]

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