The complex bodily changes that occur when we first become aware of impending changes perceived as threatening are stimulated by messages from the brain, nerves and glandular system. Set into action are those parts of the brain that regulate emotional control, biological functioning and the autonomic nervous system, causing a series of neurophysiological, or mind/body, reactions. It is important to see the connection between brain and body if we are to better manage our behavior during stressful periods.
Next, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems get into the act – muscles tighten, heart action increases, and blood pressure rises. We may perspire, feel nervous and shaky, and breathe more rapidly and deeply. What has been described very briefly here is only the first stage in a series of physical reactions.
Hans Selye, an endocrinologist, labeled this sequence “the general adaptation syndrome.” Initially in the acute stage, the entire body is mobilized. If relief cannot be found – i.e., significant reduction of the perceived demand or threat – the body will move into the second stage, that of chronic resistance. Here, it is believed that adrenocortical secretions decrease and selected systems and/or organs become involved, “carrying” the stress. These may be the weakest systems or organs, and a genetic component may be involved. One person experiences headaches, another gastrointestinal upset. Still another individual may have respiratory involvement, regularly contracting frequent colds and flu.
The most serious result of long-term stress is the compromising of the immunological system, which leaves us open to invading diseases.
Because our ability to withstand pressure is not infinite, the organs or systems involved eventually wear out or break down and stress related disease, or “diseases of adaptation,” appear. According to Kenneth Pelletier, author of Mind As Healer, Mind As Slayer, such disorders cannot be attributed to stress alone but to the fact that the body’s attempt to adapt to stress may create conditions that lead toward pathology. When a machine is overworked, the weakest part breaks down first. It is the same with the human body. “Such factors as heredity, environment, general health habits, behavioral variables and past illnesses may all play a role in determining whether illness will occur as the result of prolonged stress” (p. 76).
About the Article
This information has been provided from a resource of the Michigan State University Cooperative Extension Service.