The “fight-or-flight” reaction to stress results in easily recognized physical responses: a faster heart beat; rapid, shallow breathing; increased perspiration. However, the signs of chronic, long-term stress are more subtle and harder to recognize. Stress affects us systemically – which is to say, all over. So, over time, effects may found in any part of the body. Each person has his own level of stress that can be tolerated and once that threshold is reached, continuing stress may cause a breakdown in body functioning.
Psychologist Hans Selye (the “Father of Stress”) observed a sequence of 3 stages, which he termed the “general adaptation syndrome” (GAS) in chronic stress. Stage One is the Alarm stage; this is the well-known “fight-or-flight” stage and has an immediate physical impact. Stage Two is the Resistance stage; initially we may be able to resist stress and come to believe that we can adapt to and handle it. Eventually, though, Stage Three, Exhaustion, sets in. Stage Two causes the immune system to work at abnormally high levels and at some point the body will have used up all its resources and be forced to give in to the stress load. Our minds and bodies do not recognize any difference between an actual life-threatening stress situation and a continuing stream of small, everyday stresses (phones, young children, hectic schedules, work deadlines, etc.). The GAS is in effect.
Any and all body systems are vulnerable and may exhibit symptoms. Commonly, some headaches are known to be caused by stress. Various skin conditions, including rashes and sagging skin, may be related to stress. Digestive upsets, dry mouth, grinding teeth, ringing in the ears – may all be connected to stress. Food cravings or loss of appetite are among the symptoms of stress. Muscle tension and muscle twitching are also on the list of symptoms. Even hair loss and increased frequency of accidents may be the result of stress. The list is long.
Emotionally there are signs, too, You may find yourself more irritable or aggressive. Or you may lose interest in people and activities you once enjoyed. You may lose your sense of humor. Behavior may change, also. You may have a hard time making decisions or concentrating on something.
No one should attempt to diagnose himself; the symptoms of long-term stress are quite general in nature. Anyone with any concerns for his health should consult the appropriate health-care provider. But if you need to reduce your stress (and who doesn’t these days?) holistic methods are readily available. There is a host of physical, mental, nutritional and environmental means to help manage the stress in your life.