Physical Effects of Stress

It is not possible to experience stress of any kind without its affecting us in some way. Even the mildest change in our lives like going on a vacation or winning a prize adds to our total stress and can have an adverse effect on our bodies or psychological stability.

Consider what happens to animals when they are frightened or in other ways put under stress. Usually they either run or attack. When they “freeze” in one spot, this is only temporary. Let the stress continue or get worse and the animal eventually will run off or attack. This has been called “the flight-or-fight reaction,” and it is not limited to animals. When the stress is great, human beings also have a desire to get out of the way or to fight off the pressure as best they can.

This running or fighting puts an added strain on the body. Because of the effort involved, we must be mobilized physically for the extra action, and this is precisely what happens, automatically. Whenever stress comes along, more sugar flows into the blood to give us energy, our senses become more alert, our muscles get tense, we breathe faster, our hearts beat more rapidly, and our whole bodies get geared up. This can be useful when we are in real danger – on a freeway, for example, or facing a sudden crisis which demands all of our skill and alertness.

But what if the stress is more subtle? What if it comes from noisy kids or struggling with a tense home situation? At these times the body still gets aroused physically, but it is inappropriate for us to react by flight or tight. We must control our emotions and clamp down on our reactions. The body therefore begins to fight against itself. It is aroused for action, but the action is squelched. Naturally, our systems can’t take this for long. As a result there may be inner tension, physical disease, or mental breakdown. The body’s automatic reaction, which once was a lifesaver for hunters and warriors, has in our age become a crippler and sometimes even a killer.

Consider, for example, the problem of ulcers. Everybody knows that business executives are supposed to get ulcers, and sometimes men even joke about this being a badge of masculinity or an indication that they have finally reached the pinnacle of success in life. It would be more accurate, however, to say that ulcers are a mark of worry, tension, and the inability to control our stresses.



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