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What is Stress?

Stress is defined as "anything that disturbs the normal state of the body. It can be illness, pain, fear or even getting married. We all experience stress every day; our lives are filled with it. We have jobs, families and finances to cope with in an uncertain world. Our communities are filled with dangers and threats. All of these things are significant sources of stress.

So, there are certain life stressors that change our environment to the point where our bodies must adapt during the course of daily living. These stressors include life events such as death, divorce, a new job, moving to a new house, or the birth of a child. Stressors can be either positive or negative.

They are many times unavoidable events that all of us experience at some point in our lives. But, the situations only become stressful when these pressures, challenges, or demands exceed our coping abilities. And, if the stress you are trying to manage is negative stress, it can lead to physical, emotional, or behavioral manifestations.

On the other hand, there are times when stress can be helpful. So, I invite you to look at stress another way, as a power source to drive you toward success. Let me say that again: stress can be a power source to drive you toward success. In fact, stress can help us face the challenges of life.

Imagine you are walking down the street on a nice sunny day enjoying the beautiful view, and all of a sudden out of nowhere a stray dog comes charging in your direction. To make the picture even more vivid, let’s say the dog is frothing at the mouth. What would be your reaction? You are suddenly stricken with fear. Your heart starts to race, and you start to breathe rapidly. Next, you find yourself running toward the nearest car leaping to the safety of its rooftop. As you sit perched on the car with the dog still barking and growling, it dawns on you that you just pulled a Charlie’s Angels-like maneuver. You climbed to the roof of the car so quickly that the past few seconds are a blur. But in actuality, a surge of adrenaline heightened your readiness and ability to escape this potentially dangerous situation.

It was the sudden surge of stress hormones racing throughout your body that fueled your jump to safety. Under the influence of stress, we can sometimes summon super human strength to save ourselves or someone we love.

How many articles have we read over the years where a mother fights off a mountain lion as it attacked her small child? Or a family member lifted an automobile off of a family member pinned underneath it? These situations fuel unusual human strength because of a sudden surge in stress hormones.

Stress helps us in other ways as well. Many of us perform best under pressure. Some people do their best work when under the stress of a deadline. Many athletes perform better with the stress that comes from competition. It is clear from these examples that it is possible for stress to have a positive influence on our bodies. It is also clear that stress can wreak such havoc on some of us that our ability to function is compromised. The truth is stress can and does make us sick. The trick is to develop the skill of harnessing that energy so that it benefits us and doesn’t harm us.

How stress affects us

Researchers and medical professionals have long known there is a real relationship between illness and stress. How someone responds to the stress of physical illness, for example, in large part depends on his or her personal resolve, personality and coping mechanisms. It is well established that certain diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, peptic ulcer disease, or cardiac disease can worsen with mental stress. In fact, it is routine in many hospitals to give patients admitted to the intensive care unit medication to prevent the ravages of stress.

Many medical professionals, including myself, believe that not only is existing illness exacerbated by stress, but also many illnesses are actually caused by stress. Sue’s stress was actually the cause of her headaches, had she not removed herself from the source of her stress, or found a way to cope better; she was headed toward ongoing physical distress. This is a typical example how uncontrolled stress causes physical illness.

Newer information supports this idea that not only does physical illness cause stress, but also stress may bring on or worsen certain symptoms or diseases. Stress suppresses the body’s immune system, thereby leaving us more susceptible to disease. We also know that there is a definite physical response to stress.

When a person is scared (as in the example of the stray dog) his or her blood pressure pulse and respiratory rates increase. Stress can bring on such symptoms as diarrhea, vomiting, headache, chest pain, dizziness, backache or other ailments.

Unfortunately, medicine in the 21st century does not always consider the completeness of the human being when approaching disease states. Therefore contributing factors such as stress are often overlooked. Failure to recognize the important role of stress in disease states leads at best to incomplete medical care and at worst medical mistakes.

As we move to treat disease in a manner that best allows the body to heal itself, we must train young physicians to illicit history that will include stressors that may be complicating the disease state. We must also learn how to approach treatment so that we can adequately treat all aspects of our patients’ health issues.

The Different Types of Stress

Stress can be categorized as acute, episodic acute, or chronic. The dealing mechanism for each is unique. Let's look at each one more closely.

Acute Stress

Acute stress is the most common form of stress. It can be described as stress that happens suddenly without warning. Acute stress could flare up if you have a flat tire on your way to the office or the dishwasher overflows. It comes from demands and pressures of the present or recent past, or anticipated future demands and pressures.

Acute stress can even be thrilling and exciting in small doses, such as the feeling of high anticipation you get when you reach the top of the hill of a rollercoaster. The rush or thrill that overtakes you as you glide downhill at top speed is exhilarating for some people. But, too much stress quickly goes from exhilarating to exhausting. A fast run on a challenging wave, for example, is exhilarating early in the day. That same wave late in the day is taxing and wearing. Surfing longer and beyond the limits of your body and conditioning, can lead to a dangerous if not fatal outcome. Overdoing short-term stress can lead to not only physical distress, but also psychological distress as well. That may result in symptoms like headaches, upset stomach, and an xiety. Fortunately, most people are able to quickly discern when their bodies are feeling stressed. They can feel the physical reaction to the stressful event, and adjust to the situation quickly.

Because it is short term, acute stress does not do the extensive damage to our bodies associated with long-term stress.

Episodic Acute Stress

Some people seem to live from crisis to crisis. They're always in a rush, but always late. If something can go wrong, it does. They take on too much; say yes to everything; have too many projects going at once. They are unable to organize the barrage of self-inflicted demands and pressures clamoring for their attention. They are in a perpetual “stressed to the limit” state. My husband refers to these people as languishing at 10. In other words, everything is always full throttle. That high-pressured existence can also create a short fuse, irritability and smoldering tension. This wound up state makes it difficult to relate to others and have successful intimate relationships. Some of these people believe they are this way because of “nervous energy.”

Researchers have studied people who live this way for decades. In fact during the 1950s, two cardiologists named Meyer Friedman and R. H. Rosenman studied thousands of men and classified them as being Type A personalities. These “Type A" personality individuals are extreme examples of episodic acute stress. Friedman and Rosenman characterize Type A persons as those who have an "excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience, and a constant sense of time urgency." In addition there is a "free-floating, but well-rationalized form of hostility, and almost always a deep-seated insecurity." The scientist found Type A's to be much more likely to develop heart disease than those classified as Type B. Type B individuals are those who showed an opposite pattern of behavior, one with less aggression and hostility.

Many individuals who suffer from this episodic acute stress find that they worry all the time. They see disaster around every corner and expect catastrophe in every situation. They see the world as a dangerous, unrewarding, punitive place where something awful is bound to happen. These "doom sayers" also tend to be over-aroused and tense, but are usually more anxious and depressed than angry and hostile.

The symptoms of episodic acute stress are the same as for extended over arousal: persistent tension headaches, migraines, hypertension, chest pain, and heart disease. But, what does it take to break out of this cycle? The answer is a simple one, you have to deliberately take matters into your own hands and seek help from all available resources. That may mean accepting professional help. But most importantly, you have to be determined to help yourself.

Chronic Stress

While acute stress can be thrilling and exciting, chronic stress is not. Chronic stress is something that affects us over prolonged periods. This is the grinding stress that wears us down physically and emotionally day after day, year after year. Chronic stress destroys our bodies, minds and lives. It's the stress of poverty, of dysfunctional families, of being trapped in an unhappy marriage or in a horrible job or career. It’s the stress of an adult child caring for an aging parent, a hard working father trying to make ends meet for his wife and family, or the soldier in the combat zone constantly concerned that she could be injured at any moment in a surprise enemy attack.

Stress becomes chronic when a person sees no way out of a miserable situation. With no hope, we often abandon our sear for solutions.

Some chronic stress can also have an internal source. It can stem from traumatic, early childhood experiences that become internalized and remain forever painful and present. If we are victimized in childhood, by the time we become adults our view of the world, our belief systems, our self worth and value can be misguided. And if our views, beliefs and values are determined by our childhood experiences, how we handle stress is determined through that perspective as well. Handling stress is a learned behavior. If our parents or guardians turned to alcohol and drugs when life became difficult, then we often grow up with those same coping skills.

I have seen many patients over the years that have had traumatic events that occurred in childhood. The ongoing psychological effects of those events have since adversely impacted their health. One patient that comes to mind immediately is a young woman in her early thirties that I had seen many times for pelvic pain. It turns out that the patient had been a victim of incest during her adolescent and teenage years.

For many years, she had experienced sometimes debilitating pelvic pain. During an office visit for one such episode, she revealed that her father had molested her for many years. Of course, I referred her to a psychiatrist immediately. After working with both a psychiatrist and a psychologist, she was able to work out some of the emotional issues associated with the abuse, and with that treatment, her pain was more easily controlled.

The emotional issues around this childhood trauma and the resultant family issues was a source of chronic stress in the patient’s life. Although it affected her health in a profound way, she actually did not realize there was a connection with her past abuse and her physical pain.

One of the worst aspects of chronic stress is that people get used to it. They forget it's there and it becomes a part of their lives. They become so accustomed to living life in the danger zone; they think that is just how life is supposed to be. So, they ignore chronic stress because it is old, familiar and even comfortable.

Do not be fooled! There is a price to pay for chronic stress and it can come in the form of serious health problems. Those problems can include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, gastric ulcers, immune disorders, autoimmune disorders, depression, and sleep disorders. In severe cases, the inability to cope with chronic stress can lead us to dangerous places. Some people wear down to a final, fatal breakdown. Domestic violence, suicide and homicide can sometimes be the end result. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of physically harming themselves or someone else, do not hesitate to seek professional counseling immediately.

Signs and Symptoms of Stress

So, our biology and environment affects how we respond to stress. Some of us react emotionally, others physically and still others a combination of the two. It is important though to be aware of all of the possible ways that stress can affect us, so that we can prevent the development of chronic stress.

Emotional signs of stress include:

  • Apathy, lack of energy
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Lack of focus
  • Feeling edgy and out of control
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Sleeping too much or insomnia
  • Being overly emotional
  • Use or overuse of alcohol or drugs

Physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Chronic back pain
  • Jaw pain or tension headaches
  • Neck pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems (pain, diarrhea)
  • Palpitations

If you are plagued with stress in your life, manage that stress with a stress plan. “Stress Success” will give you all the tools necessary to make that plan and implement it.


Dr. Jill Waggoner
Charlton Medical Group
3450 West Wheatland Road
Physician Offices II, Suite 340
Dallas, Texas  75237

T 972.217.3007

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

PO Box 2118

Desoto, Tx 75213


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