Is stress an illness?

I was giving a talk last week on stress, and was asked “Is stress an illness?”. It is a good question and illustrates the difficulty of understanding what stress actually is.

Stress itself is a biological reaction to a threatening event or on-going situation, so in itself is not an illness. In fact, a certain amount of stress is good for us, it heightens our senses and makes us ready for action, for example before giving a performance or a job interview. However, too much stress can be detrimental to our body and can cause illness. Here’s why.

The “fight or flight” response to the threatening event or situation means our body creates certain hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol to provide a burst of energy or strength. The effect is to speed up our heart rate, slow our digestion, increase the blood flow to major muscle groups and cause other changes to our nervous system.

Once the threat is gone, our bodies are designed to return to normal function by relaxing. However, in times of extreme or on-going stress, there is no period of relaxation and the hormones continue to be released which causes the negative effects on our body.

This is why different people have different signs of stress, whether it be physical for example headaches or stomach problems, behavioural issues such as becoming withdrawn or being aggressive,  or an emotional reaction like crying or anger. When our bodies are under the biological pressure we all react in different ways, according to our own weak points.

Also, this explanation of stress emphasises the importance of relaxation. When people are in the middle of a very stressful time, they feel unable to relax, however this is when it is most important to do so. Going out with good friends, getting some exercise, eating properly, doing things you enjoy, these all sound so simple, but they are vital in reducing stress and getting back to normal.

This post was written by Charlie Damonsing of CLAssociates. CLAssociates specialises in helping businesses manage stress in the workplace, providing consultancy, training and 1-2-1 support. For further details please contact Charlie on 0771 559 6487.

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