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The Biology of Stress (Part 1)

Today’s post comes from the Causey Law Firm in Washington.

Today’s post is the first in a multi-part series about stress, covering first the biology of stress and the effects of chronic stress on the body.

Stress is a term that is commonly used to explain — or explain away — much in our world. We live in a time of multifactorial stress: the economy; keeping, losing or getting jobs; housing, food, medical and dental care; personal and familial safety; fear or anger over political or governmental decisions; injuries and/or disabilities. At times, stress can be overwhelming when it seems we are losing control over our lives and our futures.

The following is an overview of the biology of stress to help better understand how stress can control such a large part of our health. There are many types of stress and those will be investigated after first laying out a basic understanding of what stress is and the physiologic mechanisms of stress.

The term stress is derived from the Latin word stringere, “to draw tight.”

The term stress is derived from the Latin word stringere, “to draw tight.” It had been used almost solely in the field of physics to define the internal distribution of a force exerted on a material body, resulting in strain — or stress — such as a rubber band pulled tautly. In the 1920s, stress started to be used in both biology and psychology, referring to a mental strain or a harmful external agent that could cause illness. Interestingly, in an early example, researcher Walter Cannon used the term strain/stress in 1926 to refer to external factors that disrupted homeostasis.1

The idea of stress and homoeostasis is intriguing for it is widely known that the incredible human system strives to maintain homeostasis, or equilibrium. So, it makes great sense that maintaining equilibrium is central to the idea of stress. This is true with all biological and most biochemical processes. The body always attempts to maintain this steady state of being; however, environmental factors, internal or external, continually challenge and disrupt this equilibrium (homeostasis) causing the body to constantly strive for balance. Environmental factors causing the body continued strife are generally called stress. Stress can be simply moments or events from which the body returns to equilibrium or it can turn into chronic stress where the body is constantly trying to reach homeostasis against resistance.

The balance of our body systems can be disrupted (stressed) by events from such disparate sources as a life-threatening situation or a simple insult, resulting in disequilibrium. Stress can bring on a cascade of biological reactions Continue reading

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