Effects of Stress on the Body

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Stress: How this effects the human body and can it lead to depression.

Abstract:

Stress is a natural response reaction that occurs in our bodies every day. We all need an appropriate amount of stress in our lives to perform. When stress levels are controlled, it can be used to our advantage by gaining extra energy and focus, for example, playing a sport or having an interview for a new job. However not everyone has the ability to keep their stress levels under control. Unable to keep this stress under control and in balance is the problem many people face which often leads to worse difficulties. “The compensatory responses to these stresses are known as stress responses. Based on the type, timing and severity of the applied stimulus, stress can exert various actions on the body ranging from alterations in homeostasis to life-threatening effects and death.” (Yaribeygi, 2017)

Effects of Stress

When we talk about stress, we all tend to associate this stress happening in our minds. However, research shows that your entire body can be affected by stress. When you encounter a perceived threat, or are placed in a ‘stressful’ situation, it is your ears and eyes deliver the information they have received to the amygdala (the area of your brain which contributes to emotional processing) which then sends the signal to the hypothalamus (tiny region located at the base of your brain) and HPA (Hypothalamus pituitary adrenal axis) which is various of different interactions between your endocrine glands within the brain and on the kidney, which controls and regulates your body’s reaction to stress.  When the Hypothalamus and HPA are triggered, it sets off an alarm system within your body (C, Tsigos, and Chrousos GP, 2002). Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones which includes adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts your energy amount. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone increases blood sugar levels within the bloodstream and also has a number of major effects on the body when too much is secreted within the body. This natural reaction called the ‘stress response’ enhances a person’s ability to perform well under pressure. “This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations.” (Harvard Publishing, 2017)

Effects of stress on the systems within our body:

However, the ability for us humans to keep a constant and appropriate control over our stress can often be misjudged.  This misjudgement can cause both short and long-term effects on our bodies. The short-term stress often affects the different systems throughout our body and could possibly lead to more worse problems for a particular system depending on a current or previous fault or problem with that system. For example, the respiratory system. When an individual is stressed, they will tend breath heavier. Although it is not an issue for most people, those that suffer from asthma or a lung disease such as emphysema, obtaining the oxygen you will need to breathe easier can be very difficult. (American Psychological Association, 2017). The most common and least effective short-term effect from stress involves the musculoskeletal system. Muscles tends to tense up immediately when stress is present within the body. “Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress — the body’s way of guarding against injury and pain” (APA, 2017). Although these muscle tensions that occur within the body due to stress doesn’t have more severe long-term effect, it can still cause more problems if there is a constant occurrence of chronic stress. These problems can include migraine headaches because of tension in the shoulders, neck and head area. Other systems that can possibly be affected by the occurrence of stress includes the cardiovascular, endocrine, Gastrointestinal, Nervous System, male and female reproductive systems.

Both adrenaline and cortisol are the two main hormones produced under stressful conditions and can have a negative effect on the human body if produced in insufficient amounts. As mentioned earlier, adrenaline increase your heart rate and elevates your blood pressure and overtime, this can cause hypertension. Cortisol, along with controlling blood sugar levels, can also cause the endothelium to not function normally. Researchers now have figured out that this could possibly be an early step in activating the process that is called atherosclerosis (cholesterol plaque build-up in your arteries). these changes within your body could increase the chances of a stroke or heart attack (Salam Ranabir, 2011).

Through the stomach’s nervous system, stress can also change the composition and function of the stomachs bacteria which could affect your digestion and entire health. Speaking of digestion, does chronic stress affect your diet, and possibly be the cause of increasing body weight? Yes, stress can cause both an increase and decrease in for your diet. For the short-term effects of stress, your diet is usually decreased in size proportions. The hypothalamus in your brain secretes corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses your appetite (Harvard Publishing, 2017). However, if stress continues overtime, your diet will more than likely increase. Cortisol has a tendency of increasing your appetite. This hormone signals your body to intake more high energy foods, for example as carbohydrates and fats. High levels of cortisol can also cause you to put on those extra calories as abdominal visceral fat. This abdominal visceral fat actively releases hormones and immune system chemicals called ‘cytokines’ which can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and insulin resistance. (Sharon Horesh Bergquist, 2015)

Our stress hormones affect our variety of immune cells in a numerous of methods. Originally, immune cells are there to prepare to fight against invaders and also heal after injuries but addition of chronic stress can obstruct the function of some of our immune cells, make you more susceptible to infections and lower the rate you recover. Would you like to live a long and joyful life? Well then you might have to curve your chronic stress in a different direction. “Stress is now on the map as one of the most consistent predictors of shorter telomere length” (Stacey Lu, APA, 2014). Telomeres are ‘caps’ located at both ends of each and every strand of DNA which protects our chromosomes. Telomeres cap chromosomes for it to allow your DNA to get copied every time a cell divides without damaging the cell’s genetic code and they shorten with each and every cell division. When the telomeres become too short, a cell is now no longer able to divide which then causes the cell to die. Interestingly as Stacey Lu mentioned in the article on ‘APA’, an experiment research was done on groups of people that had psychiatric disorders related to dysregulated emotional responses, including high volume of chronic stress and depression and compare these to controls that have never experienced these disorders. The results showed that these groups of people that had chronic stress issues or suffered depression appeared to have shorter telomeres (Stacey Lu, 2014).

Treatment for stress:

Although being stressed has its effect on the body, there are ways to act facts, treat it and prevent it from causing any worse effects to you. There is a lot of ways to reverse what cortisol does to your ‘stressed’ body. The most effective treatment for this is exercise and meditation. Interestingly, both of these exercises, decrease your stress levels and increase the size of your hippocampus which will improve your learning ability and memory (Jeannette Moninger, 2017).

Can stress lead to depression?

As far as stress goes, this question is commonly asked by people throughout the world either suffering by stress or a close relative/ friend of who is. To answer this question, many experimental researches of this topic have argued whether stress is a cause for depression and it ends with them sticking to their own opinion on this topic. However, all these highly educated researches can agree that stress is a big factor that can trigger symptoms of depression. Although I don’t have a huge amount of knowledge for this topic, having done a great amount of research for this assignment and my own personal views on life, I strongly believe that stress can in fact cause depression.

Stressful life events:

“One of the most robust and well-documented effects in depression research involves the finding that stressful life events substantially increase a person’s risk for MDD (Major Depression Disorder)” (M. Slavich, George and Michael R. Irwin, 2014). These ‘stressful life events’ that has being known to be related to depression is big life events for example, not achieving your goals, a financial loss, the ending of a relationship, major health related events and being fired from your job. Through experimental research completed on this topic, the results showed that a depressed person has a 2.5 greater chance of experiencing a major life event prior to the beginning of depression compared to a person that does not suffer depression at the same time period (Mazure, 1998; Shrout et al., 1989). Interestingly as Mazure stated, in communities, 80% of ‘major depression disorder’ in the common population being precipitated by such stress (Mazure, 1998). These figures are massive in the sense for the onset for depression. They are much greater results than any other risk factor for depression (M. Slavich, George and Michael R. Irwin, 2014).

There are also genetic factors linked to stressful life events that triggers the onset of depression. One particular interesting study found that a variation in the serotonin transporter gene leaves people more vulnerable to getting depression (Munafò MR, 2012). Everybody has two copies of the gene getting one from each parent. This serotonin transporter gene can either be short or long. After experimental research was done with a high number of adults over a period of five years, the results showed that 33% of individuals with one short gene and one long gene became depressed after stressful life events. The results then showed that people with two short genes were even more likely to become stressed from this stress factor. However, people that had two long genes were much less likely to become depressed from stressful life events (Munafò MR, 2012).

Shrinkage of the brain:

As mentioned earlier, high prolonged levels of cortisol have major effects on your health that is coming from stress. Chronic stress increases the activity level in number of neuro connections in the amygdala, your brains fear centre. As these cortisol levels in your body rises, electrical signals in the hippocampus deteriorate. Along with the hippocampus’ function of stress control, its other functions include Learning and memories (Aleisa AM, 2006). We already know from the above passage that when the hippocampus is unable to control the stress in our bodies, it can lead to depression. However, when the other two functions (learning and memories) is interfered with, this can lead to Alzheimer’s. Carrying on, cortisol can literally cause your brain to shrink in size. Too much of cortisol causes the loss in synaptic connections between neurons and the shrinking of the pre-frontal cortex (part of the brain that regulates your concentration, decision making, social interaction and judgement). It also causes fewer brain cells to be created in the hippocampus. This is how chronic stress can make it harder for people to learn new things and remember things (Dean Sherzai, and Ayesha Sherzai, 2017).

This hypothesis of the brain ‘shrinking’ as a result due to stress was researched by many people. Many of these scientific researchers found that their results supported this hypothesis. A research paper written by J. Douglas Bremner highlighted that this hypothesis was supported by his findings. He did his research on patients that suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from Vietnam war and childhood abuse. The experiment started out by undergoing a paragraph recall test and verbal Selective Reminding Test to these patients and controls (people with similar ages, gender and IQ of the opposing patients. The results showed that there was a delayed reaction in the paragraph recall test and a deficit in the short-term verbal selective tests for the patients suffering from PTSD. Also, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were done on these patients that suffer PTSD. The MRI showed a reduction in the volume of the hippocampus for both the Vietnam veterans and victims of childhood abuse (J. Douglas Bremner, 1999).

Academic stress leading to depression:

Academic stress occurs in every student at some stage in their studying years in school and college. Although when we talk about academic stress, we immediately associate it with bad outcomes for the person comping with it. This is definitely not the case. In fact, this ‘academic stress’ Is usually the cause for students to do well in their exams and achieve in the different fields they go into. This is when the student can control their stress and contribute this stress and energy into time and effort for studying. However, not all students have this ability to control their stress levels.  At this present day, students are under great pressure to do well in academic studies by parents, teachers and friends. This alone adds huge amounts of stress for students trying to ‘live up to expectations’ of the people around them. Greater amounts of stress are then added in different situations for students in their academic years. This stress can come from bullying, unfriendly relationships with teachers, deadlines for projects/ assignments and of course studying for exams. Taking all these stress factors into account, they can take control over students’ lives, increasing the chances of causing depression (Narasappa Kumaraswamy, 2013).

A research paper written by P Jayanthi, M Thirunavukarasu and Rajamanickam Rajkumar examined the relationship between academic stress and depression among adolescents. This experimental research was done in secondary schools in Tamil Nadu, India. A total of 1120 adolescents was involved in the experiment after the screening by MINI-kid tool, a screening tool for depression. The results this experiment showed were remarkable. The adolescents who had prolonged academic stress were at 2.4 times of a higher risk of getting depression than the adolescents without academic stress applied to them. From these findings, it is clear that schools and colleges should be tested more often and those who have high and prolonged amounts of academic stress applied to them should be highlighted and treated to prevent the onset of depression (P Jayanthi, M Thirunavukarasu and Rajamanickam Rajkumar, 2014).

Conclusion:

It is clear that stress can have a negative effect on our bodies when not controlled. Although everybody experiences stress multiple times throughout our lives, some people are not able to regulate and control their stress levels. However, this can happen uncontrollably due to different circumstances and factors such as major life events and due to their own genes. Not only does stress affect our brains, it travels right throughout our bodies affecting different systems along the way. When this chronic stress is untreated and prolonged, it causes the onset of depression and in later life, Alzheimer’s. Educational stress is also a risk factor for causing the onset of depression in adolescents as seen from the results in the research paper written by P Jayanthi, M Thirunavukarasu and Rajamanickam Rajkumar. I’ve learned so much about people going through stress and sometimes feel like I go through the same experience from time to time. However, as I now know exercise had a vital role for the recovery of stress, I feel like this plays a big role in my good health. It’s very important to remember that depression is a disease with a biological basis, with psychological and social implications. It is not just simply a weakness that someone should easily recover from. However, there are solutions and help that can be provided to these people that suffer and it is important that they do go to specialists in this field for treatment.

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