The physiology of stress


By Jessica Suter, Undergraduate of The Open University and Events Manager for Eaton Park Science Day

Stress is a popular word in our society and is thought to be the biggest contributor to workplace sickness and depression. But what exactly is it?

Living in the human zoo, we are constantly exposed to stressors, especially those deemed unnecessary on a survival level such as consumerism and the pursuit of happiness. Stress is usually linked to just the mind – anger, upset and irrationalities – but it actually affects our entire body (HSE, 2016).

According to recent statistics, the total number of working days lost due to stress in 2015/2016 alone was 11.7 million (HSE, 2016) with a strong association found between unemployment and suicide (NHS Behind the Headlines, 2015). As well as affecting mental health, stress is also linked to chronic pain, a condition that affects just under 28 million adults in the UK (Fayaz. A, et.al., 2016).

Stress is defined as a physiological or biological response to a stressor. The stress response system is a common pathway across organisms, which is designed to temporarily assign energy currency from areas of the body considered useless in a stressful situation to other areas in the body that are beneficial for survival.

Whilst such components are considered an adaptation, when exposed to chronic stress (where the body is exposed to long periods of stress psychologically and/or physiologically) these components can cause all kinds of life-effecting issues such as high blood pressure, decreased immune function, or fertility issues.

There have been numerous studies considering how stress plays a part in debilitating conditions of the body and mind focusing on the physiological pathways of the stress response, such as the HPA, sympathetic nervous system, amygdala, and hypothalamus. What does the future hold for us humans living in a crowded and highly-pressured society?

Some experts focus on a need for pharmacologic interventions, whilst others look for longer term solutions such as psychotherapy. One interesting piece of research I have come across focuses on the idea that encouraging an understanding of stress, coping methods, and the impacts on health within individuals will advance the treatment of stress (Segerstrom. S et.al., 2012).

The Physiological Society’s annual theme ‘Making Sense of Stress’ is looking to contribute toward public engagement and education about the effects of stress, and research across the globe looking to alleviate chronic stress and its related ailments.

banners-making-sense-of-stress-event

Tune in as we go LIVE this Tuesday, 21 February at 18:00 GMT, (or in person if you’re in London) for a panel and discussion chaired by Geoff McDonald, former Global VP of Human Resources at Unilever and one of the leaders of minds@work, and featuring neuroscientist Professor Stafford Lightman and occupational psychologist Professor Gail Kinman.

References:

Fayaz, A., Croft, P., Langford, R. M., Donaldson, L. J. and Jones, G. T. (2016) ‘Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population studies.’, BMJ open, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, vol. 6, no. 6, p. e010364 [Online]. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27324708 (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Health and Safety Executive (2016) ‘Statistics – Work-related stress, anxiety and depression statistics in Great Britain (GB)’, HSE [Online]. Available at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/ (Accessed 29 November 2016).

McLannahan, H. (2004) “Chapter 3: Stress” SK277 Book 4: Life’s Challenges,  in The Open University. (eds), Plymouth, Latimer Trend and Company Ltd, pp. 79-113

NHS Choices (2015) ‘Unemployment and job insecurity linked to increased risk of suicide – Health News – NHS Choices’, Department of Health [Online]. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/news/2015/02February/Pages/Unemployment-linked-to-increased-risk-of-suicide.aspx (Accessed 29 November 2016).

Segerstrom, S. C. and O’Connor, D. B. (2012) ‘Stress, health and illness: Four challenges for the future’, Psychology & Health, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 128–140 [Online]. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08870446.2012.659516 (Accessed 29 November 2016).

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