How does mental stress affect your health?

Positive stress and negative permanent stress

Unusual physical or psychological stress was part of human life long ago: It was a matter of crossing raging rivers, hunting animals and dealing with conflicts in a group. No wonder that people are dealing with situations that we call today stress denote, in the truest sense of the word "lies in the blood". In stressful situations, the brain releases neurotransmitters (messenger substances in nerve cells) such as acetylcholine within milliseconds. The nervous system adjusts itself to "fight or flight". The blood flow is increasingly diverted to the muscles and the hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released in order to make a maximum of energy quickly available. The result: blood pressure rises, the heart beats faster, the pupils dilate, breathing becomes shorter and digestion is throttled. We feel ready to take on the world. This stress response is a natural and necessary response of the body to situations where our very existence is at stake.

Today we know that punctual stress reactions can put the body under pressure to its limits in the short term, but can promote health in the long term. Those who expose themselves to them sleep better, are more balanced and remain more vital even in old age. One therefore also speaks of positive stress or eustress. The prerequisite for positive stress, however, is that it is really only about temporary Acts under loads, after which the hormonal system is shut down again and can come to rest. The build-up of energy must be followed by a discharge: "Danger over, everything clear" is the signal that the body is waiting for.

Unfavorable: constant stress

An acute stress response only lasts about 15 minutes - that's how much time nature gives us to regulate acute hazards. And for good reason: the reserves that are tapped by the adrenaline rush and that give us enormous physical strength would no longer be enough.

Today, however, we are increasingly dealing not with short-term burdens, but with persistent Stressful situations - mostly psychological or social in nature. The "Danger-past-everything-clear" signal is absent. With this one negative stress (also called permanent stress or dysstress) the hormone release - triggered by the stressful situation - is not reduced by the discharge of energy. We use more energy, but it in no way makes us stronger. Because the hormones that the body releases under constant stress:

  • keep our immune system on constant alert so that it works aimlessly and incorrectly - infections are more common, wounds are less likely to heal.
  • put a permanent strain on the cardiovascular system: the blood pressure rises and the blood vessels become more susceptible to creeping inflammation. According to today's view, such inflammations are also the basis of arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). The increased vascular risk due to constant stress has a devastating effect: after cigarette consumption and increased blood lipid levels, constant stress is one of the main causes of myocardial infarction today. But other organs are also more heavily stressed by the constant stress - especially gastrointestinal problems (from irritable bowel to gastric ulcer) occur more frequently in people who are under constant stress.
  • also put a strain on our brain: we are constantly “tense”, irritable and easily upset. Our creativity and productivity at work decrease. In the long term, however, there is also a threat of “silent resignation”: We become numb, become listless, and even depressed after a long time. Constant stress not only affects our physical health, but also our thinking and feeling, including social life. People who are permanently stressed are more likely to become addicts, are more often impotent and have to seek treatment for depression more often.

The dangerous thing is that many of these changes are creeping in. There is no signal that warns that our body is no longer working properly.

Why are we under constant stress?

The There is no cause of permanent stress. What is a positive burden for one person can be overwhelming for another. The stress research therefore starts with one relative stress model From: Everyone has a kind of "stress thermostat" that tells them which stress they perceive to be optimal and where their stress limits are. What we classify internally as a burden or a threat has above all to do with the assessment of the burden that affects us. Stress arises not only “outside” but also “inside”: How the world is is often less important than our self-image.

A situation is most likely to be perceived as threatening when we have the feeling that we are not up to it. If we rate our own strength as low, the stress thermostat is set to a low level and the stress response starts even at low loads.

When setting the thermostat, however, our expectations and needs also play a role: What do we need to be challenged, but not aboveurges to feel? Here, too, people are very different - while some are always looking for new challenges, others primarily yearn for security.

Personality factors play an important role when assessing stress. And they can only be partly influenced, since our personality not only depends on our life experiences, but is also genetically predisposed. It is assumed that around 15% of adults are hardly susceptible to stress in terms of their personality, while another 15% overreact to stress.

Special text: Burnout

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Authors

Dr. med. Herbert Renz-Polster in: Gesundheit heute, edited by Dr. med. Arne Schäffler. Trias, Stuttgart, 3rd edition (2014). | last changed on at 16:05