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The Centre for Studies on Human Stress (CSHS) is dedicated to improving the physical and mental health of Canadians by empowering individuals with scientifically grounded information on the effects of stress on the brain and body.
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Stages of chronic stress

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John and Janet work at the same company. They have a new manager that moves up their deadline for the project they were working on.

This is an acute stressor for both of them. So they have an acute stress response and mobilize of energy, which can actually help them get cracking!

The next day, the manager puts John on a different project leaving Janet to finish the job of two people. If you add this to Janet’s family life with two kids, one in day care and one in school, over time, Janet may go through the stages of chronic stress.

Stage 1 : The ‘Pepto Bismol®’

Here, you are repeatedly exposed to situations that activate your stress response, i.e. situations that involve N.U.T.S. So, each time you mobilize energy.

  • Your heart rate and breathing increases
  • Your blood sugar levels and blood pressure increase
  • Your digestion stops

After a few days of interrupted digestion you may start to experience heartburn, diarrhea and/or constipation, hence, why we call it the Pepto Bismol® stage.

You may also experience some of the following:

  • Emotional distress: Irritability, resentment, anger, anxiety, and a depressed state
  • Muscular problems: Tension headache, back pain, jaw pain, etc.

With John and his expertise gone, Janet is faced with completing the assignment without the required training. She is likely faced with novelty, a threat to her competence (ego) and an overall low sense of control.

Stage 2 : The ‘Rhum n’ Coke’ Stage

It’s crunch time! Here, things are getting a little out of control and are somewhat chaotic. It seems as though one stressor relentlessly follows the other! The stress response system is constantly activated and constantly extracting stored energy.

You may notice that…

  • You abound with nervous energy
  • You take on too much and are always rushing and are often late
  • You feel overwhelmed and overworked
  • You feel over-aroused and short-tempered
  • You feel anxious, and/or tense most of the time
  • You cannot turn off your mind when you go to bed
  • You are constantly worrying and expecting the worst
  • You increase your intake of tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy foods
  • Your memory starts to fail you
  • You often get colds and the flu

Janet thinks about work all the time, she is not sleeping well and because she is facing N.U.T.S. on a daily basis, her stress response system is in overdrive. She works weekends and her family is eating a lot of take out. She needs to just wind down with a glass or two of Merlot every night!

In fact, Janet’s reaction is entirely normal. When the brain is constantly bombarded it screams out for rewards and release. Too often, this release comes in the form of more alcohol, tobacco, illicit and over the counter drug use and high fat and high sugar foods.

Stage 3: The ‘Glass of Water’ Stage

Here you are in full-out chronic stress. The glass of water is for all the pills you might have to take because of the wear and tear on your body caused by the repeated activation of the stress response system. At this stage, our personality can change dramatically and we have rather poor judgment.

Some of the most common health problems linked to chronic stress are:

  • Heart disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol)
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Burnout

i.e.: Janet went on at this pace for months. Her family life has suffered; she has pulled away from her husband and kids and snaps at nothing at work and at home. She has put on weight because she does not exercise anymore and is not eating right. She has a family history of heart disease and finds that her blood pressure is elevated. Janet is also down most of the time and has been put on sick leave due to a depression.

When the stress response system is activated, energy is mobilized. But we need to replenish those energy stores. After a while, our body no longer does this efficiently. In the short-run, our body tries to ‘help us’ by providing easy access to stored energy in the form of fat in the mid-section. But this added weight is not good for us in the long run.

Overall, what ends up happening is wear and tear on our stress response system and all the other body systems that work with it to ensure a healthy balance.