This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202
2001 Second Web Report
On Serendip

Stress, The Double-Edged Sword

Dena Gu

Stress, it is a part of our life that we can't not avoid or escape. There probably isn't anyone in the world today that hasn't dealt with it. It dwells in the work place, at school, in the home and most importantly, in you. So what is stress? And why do we have something that does us so much harm? Simply put, stress is an adaptive response, your body's response to an emotionally disturbing, disquieting or threatening event (1). Often times, it is the tension caused when demands from work, family and oneself can't not be met. Not to say stress is a recent disorder among humans, in fact, all organisms experience it.

Stress is a part of the 'fight or flight' response, usually the result of threatening or worrisome event. The body increases the heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rate, preparing in the event of actually needing to fight or retreat (1). For most animals, stress tends to come from acting out of self-preservation. The fleeing rabbit experiences stress as it bolts for the safety of its hole. In fact, without it, the rabbit might not survive. The surge of energy from the stress of spotting an attacking predatory might be the difference between safety and death. Early humans probably experienced stress in similar fashions. The attacking lion is a stressor enough to make the fleeing caveman run a bit faster, or fight back with more force. But unlike animals, humans experience stress another fashion, it is the stress that comes with thinking, whether it's about the future or the present. The caveman might have been stressed when the angry bear came charging up but he might also have stressed over an unsuccessful hunt and the prospect of having no food for several days.

The stress modern humans face is not so much the stress from dealing with dangerous predators but more stress of responsibilities at work or home (1). Much of the stress involved are the result of more abstract threats and nothing as concrete as a hungry bear eyeing you. Not to say that that kind of stress is non-existent in our lives, anyone living in a large, busy city like New York or Los Angeles can tell you that fear of predation adds quite a bit to their stress quota. The only difference is that the predators are other humans. Yet much of the times, this is not the kind of stress that seems to be the most detrimental to our health. The top ten stressors in life are (1).: 1. Death of a spouse 2. Divorce 3. Marital separation 4. Jail term 5. Death of close family member 6. Personal injury or illness 7. Marriage 8. Losing ones job 9. Marital reconciliation 10. Retirement

All these stressors are in one way or another, related to change, which in our minds are often seen as threatening and therefore stressful (4). With change, comes the need to deal with what was once familiar but not anymore, the need to adapt. Sadly, people tend to dwell on the change, regret events to lead to it or worry if more change might be in store for the future. This kind of thinking can lead to overstressing and health problems. With the stress that comes with everyday life, having a mindset that brings about more stress is even more detrimental.

When the stress response is activated chronically to deal with psychological or physical stressors, stress-related disease can result (3). The stressor disrupts the body's stable balance of temperature, blood pressure, and heart/respiratory rate, among other functions (3). The occasional disruption of the balanced body is normally harmless and often times helpful (8).(for instance, research has shown that stress hormones actually help stop Addison's disease from developing (5).), but constant disruptions is what needs to be avoided, and unfortunate, what is happening all too much. Because stress is both additive and cumulative, it adds up over time until the body is overloaded and symptoms appear (2). At first, the symptoms are mild; irritability, anxiety, concentration problems, mental confusion, poor judgment and anger (2). If the stress is not relieved in some way, the person can become overstressed.

With overstress comes physical damage to several organ systems of the body (4). The Immune system weakens and results in decreased resistance to infection (4). The Cardiovascular system suffers and symptoms such as high blood pressure, heart attack, abnormal heart beat and stroke might result (4). There is thyroid gland malfunction in the Glandular system; ulcers, cramps, diarrhea and colitis in the gastrointestinal tract; and itchy skin rashes (4). There are also psychological responses from the overstressed brain, caused by chemical malfunctions and malfunctions in the firing of neurons. Fatigue, aches and pains, crying sporadically, depression, anxiety attacks and insomnia are all sings of chronic stress and overstress (4).

Stress had been described as an epidemic in the western world; over two-thirds of visits to the physicians are because of stress related illnesses (2). It is believed to be a major contributing factor to coronary artery disease, cancer, respiratory disorders (asthma), accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide; the six leading cause of death in the United States (2). Not only that, stress aggravates conditions like multiple sclerosis (7). diabetes, herpes, mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse and family violence (2). It seems hard to believe that something this dangerous and costly (medical costs alone in the US are well over 1 billion dollars per year (2).) is actually meant to be helpful.

With so much stress on our lives today, it is a good idea to find out how to keep it to a health minimum. Having no stress is probably impossible and unhealthy to boot, but overstress is not something to strive for either. One of the first things you should do so to schedule out your days and make your life regular (4). When you are stressed, your body often times becomes unsynchronized, physically and chemically. By setting a schedule with time to relax and cool down, you are preventing stress from cumulating into a stage where it could cause problems (1). You should also lighten the load of social engagements, spending more time on your own to let your body rest (4). It is also important to reduce changes to your environment (1). Change, as we mentioned before, is a great cause of stress for people, regardless of whether it is positive or negative. During time so stress, keeping the environment around you as familiar as possible can help decrease stress substantially.

Because quite a bit of stress can be the result of the mental pressure you put on yourself, there are ways to reduce stress with just the mind alone. A lot of stress at work or school, for example, comes from giving yourself too much work in an unreasonable amount of time. Be realistic and set goals for yourself that can be accomplished by a normal human being, not by your ideal self (9). And when you do accomplish your tasks, don't pile on more work, relax and reward yourself with an activity you enjoy (9). Go outside, get some exercise or talk to friends (9). Often times stress can be reduced by sharing your anxieties with other people and listening to their problems. When you realize that stressful situations are not confined to your world, things will seem less personal and therefore, less aggravating. Changing your mind set also helps, how you perceive the world around you can affect the amount of stress you experience. When standing in line at the grocery store, instead of fuming about why the stupid store didn't have more cashiers working, stepping back and telling yourself to relax and read a magazine could lower your stress considerably. Sometimes it's the little things that get to you in a stressful situation, so start working on those little things first. Deep breathing exercises, light work out sessions, enjoyable activities, can all help you deal with your everyday stress.

Stress, it has been here since the beginning of our species. From the first simians to the corporate finance consultants and cardiac surgeons of today, it has been part of our daily lives. Still, it has been only recently in history that it has been causing us so much pain and trouble, where not only adults have to deal with it but elementary school students as well. As we work to understand it's importance to our lives, we will hopefully better deal with it and keep it to a healthy level. We cannot live without stress, but we definitely need to learn to live with it.

WWW Sources

1)Reservor, How to Fight and Conquer Stress

2) Stress Free Net,

3) Endocrinology and Stress-Related Disease ,

4) How to Survive Unbearable Stress, Information on stress in easy to understand terms

5) ABC News.com , Report on how stress may add to aging

6) Development of the Cerebral Cortex: Stress and Brain ,

7) Doctor's Guide: Global Edition ,

8) Psycheducation.org,

9) Getting There: Dealing with Stress ,




| Course Home Page | Forum | Brain and Behavior | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Monday, 07-Jan-2002 14:30:33 EST