So what happens to our bodies when they are bombarded by extended stress or stressful situation? The General Adaptation Model, created by Hans Selye, describes this clearly, explaining how the body readies itself for stress, tries to accommodate chronic stress and then starts to break down as stress continues beyond the expected tolerance level for coping.
The first stage is the Alarm Stage. This is the automatic reactive state that is activated when a person engages a stressor. The “fight or flight” response starts in the limbic system and hypothalamus secreting ephinephrine and norepinephrine to activate a sympathetic nervous system response. Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands. In other words, the brain sends out the chemical messengers that there is a threat and the nervous system readies all of the organs for defense against the threat. The muscles, heart and lungs get ready while other organs, not necessary for the war (like the stomach), get put on hold.
The second stage is the Resistance Stage in which the body tries to establish a front against the chronic stressor. The blood glucose levels are high to provide fuel for the body, epinephrine levels remain high and cortisol levels remain high. Since all the organs put on hold from the alarm cannot stay on hold indefinitely, the parasympathetic nervous system starts to return the organs to some normal functioning. This is the “burning the candle at both ends state.” Unfortunately, the human body does have a limit to its resources and cannot maintain this defense for ever.
If the stressors are not reduced, the third stage seeps in. This is the Exhaustion Stage. The body starts to fight against itself trying to maintain a defense against the external stressors at the same time trying to return the body’s internal environment to some state of homeostasis. Imbalances are created, resources get exhausted and the immune system becomes vulnerable. The body becomes susceptible to physical illness, emotional health problems, chronic disease or even death.
The moral of this story? Don’t let your stressors build up. Think of your body as it relates to stress like a balloon being inflated. An inflated or mostly inflated balloon full of stress is easy to pop. So let some of the air out of your balloon through meditation, yoga, exercise, taking a bubble bath. A balloon half inflated is much more difficult to pop.