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May 2017
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We often talk about stress and everyone knows, or thinks they know, what this word means. In everyday speech it refers to tension, anxiety, worry and a general bad feeling associated with negative consequences for the body and our emotional and mental state.

In general, stress is defined as:

  • a harmful, annoying and negative stimulus for the person afflicted with it; 
  • a specific physiological and/or psychological response; 
  • a specific and special type of relationship a person has with his/her environment.

Stress is actually thought to be an unspecific biological response from the body to almost any environmental stimulus and stressors are what elicit this reaction. This non-specific biological response, also called general adaptation syndrome, consists of three distinct phases:

During the alarm phase, defensive energies are mobilised (increased heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension, decreased salivary secretion, increased release of cortisol, etcetera).
In the resistance phase, the body tends to adapt to the situation and physiological indices tend to stabilise, even if the effort made to reach this state is intense.
If the stressful condition persists or becomes too intense, the exhaustion phase begins in which the body is not able to defend itself and it loses its natural ability to adapt. Illness is usually the onset in this phase too, for example, diabetes or arterial hypertension (psychosomatic illnesses).

Cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal glands in the alarm stage, affects the metabolism of sugars, proteins and fats by increasing the available energy for the body and the high anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic potential, thus increasing the body’s defences. However, in the long-term, immune defences are lowered.

The physiological response

The physiological response to stress is of primary importance. In fact, chronic stress (continual exposure to a source of stress) and repeated activation of the physiological response are directly related to the onset of cardiovascular disorders such as hypertension, ischemia and heart failure. A possible role that stress plays is being involved in the development of cancer, as well as in the reduction of immune defences. There is no doubt about the causal relationship between stress and health, and therefore also the well-being of an individual. The psychological variables which seem to mediate and modulate the relationship between stress and health the most are cognitive processes. From this point of view, stress is a complex process, during which the environment interacts with physical stimuli, psychosocial events and the individual. Stress is not just something that is out there, rather it is the result of a person's assessment process: stress is experienced when there are external or internal demands that exceed the adaptive resources of an individual.

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