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You are sitting in an audience and the speakers blast a high-pitched squeal—you cringe. You take your eye off the traffic light for a second, and the impatient driver behind you blasts his/her horn—your anger stirs. A police officer turns on his/her car lights—your stomach twists. Last, an hour before that important exam, your stomach churns, rumbles, and you head for the bathroom due to GI distress.

Sound familiar?

We’ve all had a physical reaction to some experience. The experience is the stressor; the physical reaction/ feeling is the stress reaction.

What is stress?
Stress is a momentary threat, which creates an adaptive response in the body to ensure survival. For example, shivering when you get cold, or sweating when you get too hot. The stressors that elicit the reaction can be physical, such as an infection, toxin or trauma, or emotional, which can include abuse, guilt, fear, loss of a loved one, or any other source from work, home, or family.

The stress reaction is the body’s way of preparing itself for “fight or flight.” Stress becomes a health hazard only when the stressors are constant and the physical stress response doesn’t stop. When we don’t return to our normal pre-stress set point, our normal physical and emotional state, the result is disease.

Stress has always been considered a negative thing; in reality, it helps to maintain the natural workings of the body. There are positive stimuli that are considered a stressor; exercise is the best example.

This form of stimulus causes changes in the body to adapt to the demands of the physical activity. This form of stress has beneficial effects. The physical demand on the body causes the heart rate to go up, hormones to be released to maintain blood sugar, blood vessels to dilate. Blood is sent to the skeletal muscles to supply them with oxygen and glucose. There are many other reactions happening here, but you get my point. This type of stress is normal and natural.

Once the physical activity stops, the body comes back into a normal state of functioning. 

Negative stimuli, like an emotional stressor, also create changes in our physiology in response to that specific event. Under emotional stress, the brain and body release hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline, along with other brain chemicals (more to come) as a consequence of the perceived threat or stressor.

These acute stress reactions, again, are momentary, or should be momentary. Once over, the body should come back to a normal set point, a normal state of physiological function.

What happens when the stress reaction continues? What are the long-term affects of the constant release of these stress hormones? What role do these stress hormones have on the development and progression of cancer? 

Part 2 next.