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    Stress (roughly the opposite of relaxation) is a medical term for a wide range of strong external stimuli, both physiological and psychological, which can cause a physiological response called the general adaptation syndrome, first described in 1936 by Hans Selye in the journal Nature.

    Selye was able to separate the physical effects of stress from other physical symptoms suffered by patients through his research. He observed that patients suffered physical effects not caused directly by their disease or by their medical condition.

    Selye described the general adaptation syndrome as having three stages:

  • alarm reaction, where the body detects the external stimulus
  • adaptation, where the body engages defensive countermeasures against the stressor
  • exhaustion, where the body begins to run out of defenses


  • Stress includes distress, the result of negative events, and eustress, the result of positive events. Despite the type, stress is additive. If your dog dies and you win the lottery, one does not cancel the other both are stressful events.

    Stress can directly and indirectly contribute to general or specific disorders of body and mind. Stress can have a major impact on the physical functioning of the human body. Such stress raises the level of adrenaline and corticosterone in the body, which in turn increases the heart-rate, respiration, blood-pressure and puts more physical stress on bodily organs. Long-term stress can be a contributing factor in heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and other illnesses.

    The Japanese phenomenon of karoshi, or death from overwork, is believed to be due to heart attack and stroke caused by high levels of stress.

    Serenity is a disposition free from stress. (see also our Health & Stress pages- link).

    Neurochemistry and physiology of the general adaptation syndrome

    The general neurochemistry of the general adaptation syndrome is now believed to be well understood, although much remains to be discovered about how this system interacts with others in the brain and elsewhere in the body.

    The body reacts to stress first by releasing catecholamine hormones, adrenaline and norepinephrine, and glucocortisoid hormones, cortisol and cortisone.

    The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a major part of the neuroendocrine system, involving the interactions of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. The HPA axis is believed to play a primary role in the body's reactions to stress, by balancing hormone releases from the adrenaline-producing adrenal medulla and from the corticosteroid producing adrenal cortex.

    Folklore of stress

    About the time of Selye's work, the gradual realization dawned that age-old if sometimes ill-defined concepts such as worry, conflict, tiredness, frustration, distress, overwork, pre-menstrual tension, over-focusing, confusion, mourning and fear could all come together in a general broadening of the meaning of the term stress. The popular use of the term in modern folklore expanded rapidly, spawning an industry of self-help, personal counselling, and sometimes quackery.

    The use of the term stress in serious recognized cases such as those of post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosomatic illness has scarcely helped clear analysis of the generalized 'stress' phenomenon. Nonetheless, some varieties of stress from negative life events, or distress, and from positive life events, or eustress, can clearly have a serious physical impact distinct from the troubles of what psychotherapists call "the worried well".

    Techniques of stress management include:

  • self-understanding (e.g. self-identification type of personality)
  • self-management (e.g. becoming better-organized)
  • conflict resolution
  • positive attitude
  • self-talk
  • breathing
  • meditation
  • exercise
  • diet
  • rest


  • Some techniques of time management may help a person to control stress. For example:

  • becoming more organized and reducing the generation of clutter
  • setting priorities can help reduce anxiety
  • using a "to do" list of tasks that a person needs to complete can give a person a sense of control and accomplishment


  • Effective stress management involves learning to set limits and to say "No" to some demands that others make.

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