STRESS (EUSTRESS AND DISTRESS): EXPLANATION
Stress and anxiety are closely related: we might even consider the phenomena as two sides of the same coin. As mentioned elsewhere, the relationship between the individual and the environment is subject to frequent interaction of a stressful nature that can result in the onset of anxiety. The stressors, i.e., the elements within the environment (situations, experiences or persons) which place the organism under stress always undergo a cognitive elaboration upon which the person’s reaction will depend to a large extent. Anxiety derives from such an elaboration, as would occur for example in the case of a person who perceives a danger as real and wants to be free from it. Stress is basically the first stimulation the organism experiences at the occurrence of a modification of the equilibrium existing between the organism and the environment. Anxiety is then one of the possible consequences.
We all respond to stressful events in different ways as people acquire different experiences throughout their lives and develop different thought patterns and strategies of interpretation of reality. Moreover, the processes of learning play a fundamental role in the interpretation of internal and external events. We learn how to behave in a certain way when confronted by certain stimuli, and the learning mechanisms themselves are triggered automatically outside of our awareness. Our personal evaluations of events and situations undergo the effect of learning and, once consolidated, function in a relatively autonomous manner. In fact, thanks to these behavioural schemes and established thought patterns we can actually save mental and physical energy; they are based on previous experience that has already been elaborated and can be easily recalled and referred to.
A response to stress can be divided into three phases. In the first phase - defined as the ‘alarm phase’ - stressors generate within the organism a sense of vigilance or arousal (see glossary), with the consequent activation of the psycho-physiological processes already described in relation to anxiety reactions (increase in heart rate, hyperventilation etc.). Then, in the ‘phase of resistance’, the organism will attempt to adapt to the situation and the physiological indices now tend to normalize, also in circumstances where reactions and efforts made are very intense. If adaptation to the situation fails, a third stage is reached - the phase of exhaustion - in which the organism can no longer defend itself and its natural adaptive capacities are lost.
This latter phase is the most dangerous as prolonged exposure to a stressful situation can cause the onset of both physical and mental forms of pathology (see ‘Anxiety Disorders’). In particular, chronic stress activates a circuit involving cerebral structures and the endocrine system (the hypothalamus-hypophysis-adrenal axis), and in particular the adrenal glands, which increase secretion of cortisol. When present in quantities higher than normal, this ‘stress hormone’ can cause various disorders (see also ‘Stress and Illness’).Some of the most frequent symptoms of stress are: a frequently recurring sensation of tiredness, accelerated heartbeat, difficulty in concentrating, panic attacks, crying, depression, frustration, anxiety attacks, sleep disorders, muscular pain, stomach ulcers, diarrhea, stomach cramps, colitis, improper functioning of the thyroid, being sickness prone, having difficulty in expressing oneself or finding the right words, a feeling of boredom in practically all situations, the frequent need to urinate, changes in the tone of voice, hyperactivity, mental confusion, irritability, the lowering of autoimmune defences, diabetes, hypertension, headaches and ulcers.
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