Understanding Stress and How Lifestyle Medicine Can Help

Updated: Jun 9

Overview

Hans Selye, a Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist and known as the Father of Stress Theory, once said,

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older."

Most of the time, you use the term “stress” to actually mean “stressors”. That is because, more often than not, you associate stress with undesirable situations.


One of the six areas of focus of Lifestyle Medicine is stress management. This article will discuss stress, how it affects you, and why Lifestyle Medicine focuses on stress management.


Good and Bad Stress

Any circumstance that causes you stress is called a stressor. It could be physical or physiological changes in the body, changes in the environment, life events, or behavioral changes. Even imaginary situations like worry and fear could become stressors.


However, stress is a normal physical and psychological reaction of your body to the demands of your daily life. A little amount of stress motivates you to perform better. Eustress or good stress does not only help you in restoring your energy but also improve your heart function and increase your stamina and strength. They sharpen your thinking and enhance your mental ability.


Distress on the other hand, has a negative impact on your body. It causes you anxiety or a feeling of displeasure. Distress affects your performance and can lead to your mental as well as physical problems.


With today’s modern living, stress becomes a double-edged sword that could kill you if left unmanaged over time. Hence, it is very important how you perceive an event or a situation because the way you handle stress is an indicator of your overall health and well-being.


The Physiology of Stress

General Adaptation Syndrome

In 1936, Hans Selye conducted a study on the hypothetical "non-specific response of the body to any demand". That was how Selye first describe "stress" in medical terms and the stress model General Adaptation Syndrome was conceived.


Selye theorized that the body adapts constantly to stressors in a predictable biological pattern so that the body's internal equilibrium or homeostasis would be restored and maintained. His study explains the stress response and how chronic exposure to stress can cause aging and diseases.


To understand how stress affects your body, Selye described the General Adaptation Syndrome into three stages:


Alarm Stage

The first step in a stress response is the perception of the threat or stressor --- real or imaginary. The hypothalamus in the brain perceives the stressor and performs the following:


  1. Activates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) regulates the activities of the internal organs like circulation, digestion, respiration, temperature regulation, excretion, etc. It consists of the sympathetic (arousal) and parasympathetic (relaxed) nervous system.


The sympathetic system is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. In response to a stressor, catecholamines --- epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) --- are released causing several changes like increase in your heart rate, increase in the force of heart contraction, vasodilation of arteries to the working muscles, vasoconstriction of arteries to non working muscles, dilation of pupil and bronchi, and reduction of digestive activities in the body.