By: Monica Zatarski, PharmD, RPh
According to the Annual Stress Survey by the American Psychological Association, 75 percent of women experience moderate to severe stress, 49 percent report sleep problems, and more than 40 percent report physical symptoms as a direct result of stress. The problem is we rarely turn off! And neither does our stress response, which is where all the trouble begins. The stress response evolved to handle immediate and short-lived threats. When they don’t stop, they backfire, turning into chronic symptoms – or worse, medical problems. Let’s look at the three phases the body makes is response to stress. Understanding these phases will help you understand why your body responds the way it does, as well as how to help minimize the harmful effects.
The Alarm Phase (The “Fight-or-Flight” Response)
The alarm phase is the initial response to stress. Your body goes into full alert, responding to the stress chemicals release into the blood stream (such as adrenaline) by increasing blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen intake and blood flow to muscles. Typically, the increased adrenaline lasts a few minutes to a few hours and is followed by a drop in adrenaline, cortisol and other adrenal hormones that lasts a few hours to a few days, depending on the magnitude of the stress. After the alarm reaction is over, your body goes through a temporary recovery phase that typically lasts 24-48 hours. During this time, there is less cortisol secreted, your body is less able to respond to stress and the mechanisms overstimulated in the initial alarm phase become resistant to more stimulation. In the recovery phase, you feel more tired and listless and have a desire to rest.
The Resistance Phase
After the recovery phase, if there is additional stress or a series of stressors your body goes into Resistance Phase. Entering this phase lets your body keep fighting a stressor long after the effects of the fight-or flight response have worn off. Cortisol is largely responsible for this stage. Cortisol helps to ensure that your body has a large supply of energy (gluconeogenesis) as well as promotes the retention of sodium to help your blood pressure remain elevated and your heart contracting strongly. The resistance reaction provides you with the necessary energy and circulatory changes you need to deal effectively with stress. A prolonged resistance reaction increases the risk of significant disease (including high blood pressure, diabetes, and cancer) because the continual presence of elevated levels of cortisol overstimulates the individual cells and they begin to break down. The resistance phase can continue for years, but because each of us has different physiology and life experience the amount of time one can remain in this phase is unpredictable.
The Exhaustion Phase
During the exhaustion phase, lower levels of cortisol and aldosterone are secreted, leading to decreased gluconeogenesis, rapid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), sodium loss and potassium retention. Body cells function less effectively in this condition as they rely heavily on a proper amount of blood glucose and the ratio of sodium to potassium. As a result, your body becomes weak. Excessive stress has the potential to eventually exhaust your body. Anyone in this phase should seek medical assistance.
If you are interested in overcoming the effects chronic stress is having on your body, speak with one of the pharmacists at MD Custom Rx today.