Heart Health – The 3 Stages of Stress

According to Hans Selye, leading researcher on the effects of stress, your body can go through three stages when stress is present and persists.

First, your body will enter an alarm stage. This is where your body perceives a threat and activates your sympathetic nervous system – causing your adrenal glands to release the “stress hormones” of adrenaline and cortisol. You go into a “fight or flight” response. It is important to note that what causes this response is anything you perceive as a threat: from traffic, running from a bear, deadlines at work, or hectic schedules. The immediate effect of excess cortisol and adrenaline are to increase the amount of sugar in your bloodstream because it will be used for energy. They also raise the heart rate and blood pressure to get blood pumped to the organs and muscles that need it most.

Some of these threats pass quickly (traffic or running from a bear) and your body stops the stress response and returns to normal. Some threats, like deadlines at work, pass fairly quickly but are quickly replaced by a new deadline. Other threats, like hectic schedules, never seem to end! If the threat continues, your body will progress into the second stage, resistance, in which you will continually release these stress hormones into your body.

If your body does not deal with this stress response appropriately, called maladaptation, your body will enter the third stage called exhaustion or burnout. Seems pretty self-explanatory, right? Reacting inappropriately to prolonged stress will deplete your immune system and injure tissue cells – particularly of the hippocampus portion of the brain which impacts memory and brain function. Having high levels of sugar in the bloodstream can lead to diabetes and heart disease along with an increased heart rate and blood pressure over time will lead to heart disease.

This is why “stress” is at the top of the list for risk factors for heart disease. How much stress (either actual physical stress or mental stress) do you have? If you are like the rest of us, you have a lot! What steps are you taking to prevent this excessive stress from causing major health issues – like heart disease?

– Dr. Bethany Cannon

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