The distinction between types of stress is important, though. It is commonplace to talk vaguely about the impact of stress on the body.
Dr Ojum Ekeoma Ogwo
You are going slowly across the street – absent-minded, feeling tired and despondent. Suddenly you see an automobile bearing down on you: you leap to the sidewalk. Then your body begins to shake, and you start panting breathlessly. The “fight or flight” reaction syndrome has taken over. I shall come to this later.
What is stress?
Stress is a nervous tension. In the past I had discussed “executive stress” variously, but donkey years of medical practice has shown that stress has become universal.
• Stress may be conscious or unconscious – that is, the person may know he feels tense or he may not.
• Stress may be environmental or psychological – that is, the person may be reacting to a physical threat or a mental threat.
• Stress may be acute or chronic – that is, the threat may be an event or a continuing situation. These are just some of the variables, but the result is that stress occurs in a person’s reactions to certain situations, which apparently threaten him or exert pressure on him.
So whatever the cause, stress in the end depends on our reaction to events – not on the outside event.
READ ALSO: How to manage stress
What is the effect of stress on health?
The distinction between types of stress is important, though. It is commonplace to talk vaguely about the impact of stress on the body. But such talk usually confuses these different types, when their relationship with the body may differ considerably.
It is especially important to distinguish between environmental and psychological stress, and acute and chronic.
Combining the two criteria, examples of stress situations might be:
a) Acute environmental: As stated at the beginning of this write-up, being nearly run over by a vehicle.
b) Chronic environmental: Working in extremely noisy conditions. You are perpetually unhappy at work.
c) Acute psychological: Ranging from losing an argument, to the loss of a wife or son.
d) Chronic psychological: Unhappy at work, living in an unhappy marriage etc. a) Acute Environmental Stress.
As mentioned in my introduction in “Fight or flight Syndrome”
When a threatening event occurs in the environment, the body has a specific reaction.
• Signals from the brain, stimulate the autonomic nervous system – over which we have no conscious control. This causes the release of powerful hormones – including epinephrine, which key up the body for action.
• The resulting fight or flight syndrome.
1) Increase in rate and strength of heartbeat.
2) Constriction of blood vessels.
3) Rise in blood pressure.
4) Increase in blood sugar and fatty acids.
5) Dilatation of nostrils and bronchi
6) Increased muscle tension. And
7) Retraction of the eyeballs and dilation of the pupils.
• All these speed up the person’s reactions, and make him more capable of any supreme physical effort that the danger may demand – whether it is fighting or running away.
• Also blood coagulation time shortens to reduce the effect of any wounds.
• That is also why we could jump down from a burning storey building and continue running without noticing that we have broken our bones.
What are the dangers of inappropriate reactions?
• In primitive man, the fight or flight syndrome was appropriate to the dangers he faced.
• But nowadays, apart from being run over, few of our modern threats are ones we have physically to run from or fight.
• Imagine that, being a harassed pedestrian. I am driving a molue articulated bus in Lagos, and a Dangote trailer swerves and nearly crashed into me. My danger may be just as great, and all my body processes of fight and flight, instantly start working.
• But the only action I can take is to step on the brake. Even if that is successful, my body is left ready for a struggle that never happens.
That was why the research done by Prof J C Wright on Lagos Roads, concluded that any Lagos residence who uses Lagos roads daily, has his life span reduced by 5 years. No researcher has contradicted him. Let me tell you why.
What are the damaging Effects of Environmental Stress?
1) In fight or flight, the epinephrine has prompted the release into the bloodstream of fatty acids – needed to fuel the muscles and make the wound clot more quickly if a wound occurs.
2) When there is no struggle these fatty acids are left circulating through the blood vessels and may convert into blood cholesterol deposits.
3) Repeated incidents may result in a constant high pressure.
4) Research has shown that repeated environmental stress situations can be a major cause of atherosclerosis and other heart diseases – if no physical movement is possible, to “use up” the body’s response syndrome.
Next week: I shall tell you how to get back the 5 years lost due to stress. Be medically guided.
► Please follow me on twitter; @ _ DRSUN