Stress: We All Experience It
Stress, as a psychological concept, may be relatively new, but its impact upon us isn’t. As part of human evolution, we developed a natural response to protect our survival and be able to react quickly to danger. We all experience stress, whether it’s everyday responsibilities or something more traumatic such as being diagnosed with cancer. Not surprisingly, those who experience chronic stress are more likely to develop mood and anxiety disorders. If you are struggling with stress, it’s important to be on the lookout for signs of burnout to help manage your stress and personal expectations of how you perform your various responsibilities.
Definition of Stress and The Body’s Natural Response
A simple definition for stress is the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental or emotional pressure. From a clinical perspective, “it is the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors” (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Think of stress as a response to an actual or perceived threat that causes your body to react and activate itself. However, our brains don’t do a good job of deciphering physical threats from emotional threats. Not all stress is bad; in non-threatening situations stress can be a healthy, positive motivator, such as applying for a new job.
So, Stress Affects Your Body, But What Happens in Layman’s Terms?
The hypothalamus is a small, almond-shaped gland at the base of the brain that maintains the body’s internal balance. It helps increase or decrease many of your body’s key functions. It receives messages from all parts of the nervous system – the central nervous (information from brain + spinal cord), peripheral (everything outside the central nervous system), and endocrine (hormones that regulate body functions) systems – and coordinates a response.
The hypothalamus responds to stress by “talking” to your central nervous system, which is in in charge of the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, and causes the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones speed up your heart to quickly pump blood to the heart, muscles, and other vital organs, quicken your breath, and force you to increase oxygen to fuel your body to respond ASAP. Once the threat has been dealt with or disappears, the hypothalamus communicates with the 3 systems to return to inner balance again. If the systems fail to return to normal or the threat continues, the hypothalamus’ response to the stressor continues.
Health Impacts of Chronic Stress
Chronic or long-term stress can lead to significant, negative impacts upon your health. The hypothalamus continues to signal the release of stress hormones and the body does not receive a message to return to an inner balance. Our bodies weren’t designed to be in a constant state of high alert with a steady supply and build-up of stress hormones. Research points to high cortisol levels affecting the brain in many ways, including shrinkage in the area where memories are stored and processed, loss of desire to be social and avoidance of those interactions, destroying brain cells, decreasing the size of the brain, losing the ability to self-manage emotions, and affecting the ability to learn. The brain does have some ability to rebuild brain connections (plasticity), however, as we age it becomes more difficult.
Not only does chronic stress affect brain functioning, but it also leads to physical effects. High cortisol levels cause the liver to produce extra blood sugar, which can increase the likelihood of developing diabetes. Stress hormones have the effect of increasing blood pressure and forcing the heart to overwork, leading to increased likelihood of stroke, heart attack, or another cardiovascular event. Muscles respond to stress by tensing to avoid injury. When not allowed to relax over a long period of time, pain can develop as a result and affect mobility or ability to exercise, possibly leading to use of prescription pain medications to manage it. Long-standing stress will reduce your body’s immune response – making you more likely to get viruses or infections and lengthening time to recover from injury or sickness.
Burnout Defined and Prevalence
Unfortunately, researchers don’t agree on a standard definition for burnout and there are no clear diagnostic criteria. For our purposes, we’ll define burnout as “a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress” (Smith, Segal, & Robinson, 2020). Another useful description is “having less capacity to sustain and less capacity to give” (Papia, 2014). A study done in 2020 documents stress as a national crisis. Burnout is more likely to occur when we are not practicing self-care, demands or responsibilities become overwhelming, and we are unaware of the signs and symptoms.
Signs and Symptoms of Burnout
Are you on your way to burnout? The negative effects of burnout can affect various life areas, including your home, work, social life, and lifestyle choices. Burnout is the sense of not having enough personal resources and lack of hope the situation will be resolved in a positive way, whereas stress involves too many demands upon your resources but thinking once you can gain some control, the situation will be.
Contributing Factors to Burnout
Burnout is not simply related to having a stressful occupation or overwhelming demands upon your time. Beyond work, lifestyle choices, personality traits, and your view of the world can contribute to burnout.
Lifestyle factors and personality traits that can have an impact include:
I hope this information helps to manage stress and cope with the uncontrollable. Good luck!
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I’m Stressed Out all the Time: Impacts of Chronic Stress and Burnout is written by David Cayton, M.A, M.S.. David has experience as a mental health professional working with children, teens, and professionals, an academic advisor, education-based research assistant, and student affairs at colleges and universities. At the time of this publishing, David Cayton is Trainer and Research Associate at Small Town Counseling® a group mental health practice located in California that helps individuals, groups, and organizations in promoting mental wellness and education on trauma and anxiety through mental health services and training.
American Psychological Association. (2020). Stress in America 2020. A national mental health crisis. Retrieved on September 13, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2020/sia-mental-health-crisis.pdf
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Stress. Retrieved on September 13, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/stress
Bernstein, R. (2016). The mind and mental health: How stress affects the brain. Retrieved September 14, 2021, from https://www.tuw.edu/health/how-stress-affects-the-brain/
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (n.d.). Stress. Retrieved February 28, 2022, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stress
National Institute of Mental Health, (n.d.). 5 things you should know about stress. Retrieved on September 13, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress
Papia, D. M. (2014). Burnout and self-care: A process in helping. Retrieved on September 13, 2021, from https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/burnout-and-self-care-a-process-in-helping/
Smith, M., Segal, J., & Robinson, L. (2020). Burnout prevention and treatment. Retrieved on September 15, 2021, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm#
Pietrangelo, A. (2020). The effects of stress on the body. Retrieved on September 13, 2021, from https://www.healthline.com/health/stress/effects-on-body
Sargis, R. M. (2021) An overview of the hypothalamus. Retrieved on September 14, 2021, from https://www.endocrineweb.com/endocrinology/overview-hypothalamus