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Stress has become such a common buzz word. We all talk about it. We generally know it is bad for us. It is constantly in the news.

There are exceptions though. Some believe that stress is good, arguing that if you take away the stress you take away the motivation and drive.

But whenever I get into conversation with someone and start to dig a little deeper with questions like, “So, what do you think is stress?” “Why do you think that stress is bad?” Why do you think it is good?” Or, “How do you deal with stress?” The subject becomes very squishy, very quickly.

Even Hans Selye, the person who originally coined the term stress in 1936 in the context of health and spent life-time studying it, at one time threw up his hands and declared, “Everyone knows what stress is, but no one really knows.”

So, let us take the first question first, what is stress, any ways.

Webster’s Dictionary defines Stress as “a state of mental or worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc.”; or, “something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety”

According to the American Institute of Stress, another popular definition of stress is, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”

Few useful concepts, while talking about stress are:

Acute Stress: Fight or flight. The body prepares to defend itself. It takes about 90 minutes for the metabolism to return to normal when the response is over.

Chronic Stress: The cost of daily living: bills, kids, jobs…This is the stress we tend to ignore or push down. Left uncontrolled this stress affects our health- our body and our immune system. This is the type of stress that causes wear and tear on our bodies and can impact health and longevity.

Eustress: “Good stress” in daily life that has positive connotations, e.g., marriage, promotion, child birth, winning money, new friends, graduation

Distress: “Bad stress” in daily life that has negative connotations, e.g., divorce, punishment, injury, negative feelings, financial problems, work difficulties.

So, from  the point of view of theses definitions, the stress is really a subjective concept, based on how we perceive a thing or an event. The same event or activity, say a roller coaster ride, could be a eustress (good stress) for one person and distress for another. This is why psychologists or mental health practitioners often get involved in diagnosing and helping cope with chronic stress.

Although stress is a subjective concept, the impact on our bodies is often very objective and real. We have all experienced the rising of hairs on the back of the neck, the sweats, tension in our gut, racing of heart, dilating of pupils, and pumping of blood in our face, arms and legs.

As the following figure shows, stress starting in mind, causes, a chain reaction of neurological, chemical and biological processes. (Figure is taken from a presentation,Why Stress Is A Far More Important Cause Of Coronary Disease Than Cholesterol, by Paul J. Rosch, M.D., F.A.C.P. President, The American Institute of Stress)

Effects of Stress

Physiological effects of most acute stress events subside about 90 minutes after the conclusion of the stress event. Body returns to normal homeostasis or biological equilibrium.

However, it is the repeated acute stress events or chronic stress that are real cause for concern and take toll on our bodies. The results of such chronic stress can be objectively measured from a host of biomarkers that include (from Biomarkers of Chronic Stress, by Laalithya Konduru):

  • Metabolic Biomarkers: Cholesterol, Albumin, Waist-to-Hip Ratio, Glycosylated Hemoglobin
  • Immunological Biomarkers: IL-6, TNF-α, CRP, IGF-1
  • Neuroendocrine Biomarkers: Cortisol, DHEA, Adrenaline, Noradrenaline, Dopamine, Aldosterone
  • Certain Metabolites, chemical figure prints of cellular processes
  • Modifications in Mitochondria
  • Induction in the Brain of DRR1, a tumor suppressor gene

Most of us recognize some of these biomarkers. Others are quite esoteric. In any case, from this list, it does not take a neuroscientist to figure out that chronic stress can mess with a number of things that are key to our health: insulin, cholesterol, hormones, our immune system, can cause inflammation, reduce energy level in the body and impact working of our brain.

Looks like a real important subject to me, if we want to live healthy life free of chronic diseases for an optimal life span.

What do you think? How do you fee about stress?

In a future post, I would like to explore some anti-dotes to chronic stress