The purpose of this paper is to define stress and how it effects the body’s physiological systems. This paper will include the normal functions and organs involved in the following five physiological systems, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, respiratory, immune and musculoskeletal. This paper will also include a description of a chronic illness associated with each physiological system and how the illness is affected by stress.
Stress means different things to different people and stress effects people in different ways. Some people think stress is something that happens to them such as an injury or a promotion and others think that stress is stress is what happens to our mind, body and behaviors in response to an event. While stress does involve events and how one responds to them these are not the critical factors, but our thoughts about the situation in which we are involved are the critical factors. Essentially, stress exists whenever homeostasis is disturbed or cannot be maintained (Stress and the Social System Course Guide, 1993). Homeostasis refers to the body’s ability to keep the internal chemical and physical environments constant. As your body begins to react to stress several changes occur. These changes include increased heart rate, blood pressure and secretion of stimulatory hormones. Ones body prepares itself in stressful situations to either stand ground and fight or to flee from the situation. Walter Cannon called this stressful reaction the fight-or-flight response (Greenberg, 1999).
There are different ways in which one can experience stress and it is important to remember that stress is an essential part of life. Not all stressful situations are negative. Receiving a promotion at work, the birth of a child or taking a trip can all be stressful but are not threatening. The reason why one may see these situations as stressful is because they may feel unprepared to deal with them. To eliminate confusion and misuse of words Hans Selye gave names to the different types of stress one may experience, he described damaging or unpleasant experiences as distress and pleasurable or satisfying experiences are called eustress (Rice, 1999).
The next part of this paper will consist of information describing the organs and the normal functions involved in five of the physiological systems in the human body. It will also include one illness associated with each system and how that illness is affected by stress. They five physiological systems are:
1. Cardiovascular System
The cardiovascular system consists of the heart and blood vessels.
The heart pumps blood and the blood vessels channel and deliver it throughout the body. The bloods work is done when it gives up what the cells need and takes away the waste products they do not need. Arteries carry blood filled with nutrients away from the heart to all parts of the body. Arteries are thick-walled tubes with a circular covering of elastic fiber, which contain muscle that absorbs pressure of a heart beat and slows blood down. The system works continuously through a network of veins and arteries to ensure that oxygenated blood, needed for all vital functions, is distributed to organs and muscles (The American Medical Women’s Association Guide to Cardiovascular Health, 1997).
Coronary heart disease is the major cause of cardiovascular disease, which is the number one cause of death in both men and women (The American Medical Women’s Association Guide to Cardiovascular Health, 1997).Coronary heart disease refers to the presence of atherosclerosis in the coronary arteries that supply blood to the tissue of the heart, including its musculature and nervous system (Stress and the Social System Course Guide, 1993). Atherosclerosis is a condition that causes blood supply to be limited, which causes a buildup in the lining of the arteries that, narrows their openings.
Two cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman did studies that resulted in the identification of a Type A behavior pattern. Individuals with Type A behavior patterns are, aggressive, competitive, time-urgent, hostile and often found doing things quickly or multiple tasks at once. These are all behaviors that are related to stress. Type A behavior patterns were also disproportionately represented among heart attack patients. A review of the studies has verified that a relationship does exist between Type A stress related behaviors and coronary heart disease (Greenberg, 1999).
The physiological mechanisms that appear to lead from chronic stress to coronary heart disease seem to be related to increased serum cholesterol, blood pressure, blood volume and accelerated heart rate. These problems interfere with the normal flow of blood through the coronary vessels of the heart and are related to the effects of emotional stress. Stressed individuals also tend to possess habits that multiply stress on the heart such as smoking cigarettes, overeating throughout the day and lack of participation in a regular exercise program.
2. Gastrointestinal System
The gastrointestinal system includes the liver, gall bladder, esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon. The gastrointestinal system enables the body to digest and absorb nutrients from food, and protects the body from incoming allergens, toxins and metabolic waste products. The gastrointestinal system is the largest immune-reactive system in the body. Functional problems within this system can effect every other organ and system in the body.
One of the conclusions of Hans Selye’s research was that stress can have disastrous effects on the gastrointestinal system (Rice, 1999). One such effect is peptic ulcers. A peptic ulcer is a hole or break in the protective lining of the esophagus, the stomach or the duodenum. Duodenum and stomach are the two most common forms. They are called peptic ulcers because they are believed to result from increased secretion of a stomach enzyme known as pepsin. Peptic ulcers may be classified into three types: the acute, the chronic or the stress ulcer. Peptic ulcers occur when excess amounts of gastric juices are used to digest food. The result is irritation, bleeding and when they are severe enough they can create a break in the stomach wall.
People subjected to severe stress have a high incidence of ulcers. The reason for this is that people who are stressed secrete more acid and pepsin.This increased secretion of acid and pepsin suppresses the activity of cells that normally protect the stomach from its tissue-digesting enzymes and acids. In addition, one may also be predisposed for peptic ulcers because of heritable factors. Their levels of pepsinogen, the precursor of pepsin, can identify these individuals. Such individuals would be presumed to be at greater risk of developing ulcers due to emotional stress (Course Guide Stress and the Social System).
It has also been found that most patients who have ulcers due to stress have bacterial infections known as Helicobacter pylori that may cause their problem. These bacteria can be found in the stomachs of more than 50 percent of healthy American adults. It can persist in the body for many years without causing any problems. However, it is thought to create problems in individuals who are under a lot of stress. Due to the fact that stress can lower immune defense against bacterial and viral infections (Course Guide Stress and the Social System, 1993).
3. Respiratory System
The respiratory system is made up of the lungs, bronchi, trachea, mouth, larynx, nose and diaphragm. The main function of the respiratory system is to bring oxygen into the body and take carbon dioxide out of the body. The process is as follows; air is taken in through the mouth and/or nose and down through the throat. The air then passes down the trachea through the bronchi and into the lungs. Oxygen from the inhaled air then diffuses through the alveoli walls into the capillaries. Next comes the exhale which is when the skeletal muscles and diaphragm return to the relaxed position which decreases the size of the chest cavity forcing the air and carbon dioxide from the lungs (Mary Kittredge, 1989)
One chronic physical illness involved with the respiratory system is asthma. Asthma is a problem that occurs when one is trying to exhale. During an asthma attack bronchial swelling and muscle spasms cause the lungs tiny airways to narrow, which then causes them to fill with mucous. Stale air gets trapped in the bottom of the lungs, forcing one to gasp for air through the top part of the lungs (OnHealth: Stress, 1998).
Asthma attacks can often be caused by stress. During stressful situations the body’s immunological system is effected which in turn causes the body to have a lowered number of T-lymphocyte cells. T cells are the cells in the body that are responsible for destroying antigens. Therefor, the effects of stress that cause T cells to be decreased can cause the body to decrease or not be able to withstand antigens (meaning a decrease in the body’s allergic threshold) leading to an allergic like response which can turn into an asthma attack.
4. Immune System
The immune system consists of organs that are stationed throughout the body. They are referred to as lymphoid organs because they deal with the growth and development of lymphocytes; the white cells are key to the immune system. The lymphoid organs include bone marrow and the thymus, lymph nodes, tonsils, adenoids, the appendix, clumps of tissue in the small intestine known as Peyer’s patch and lymphatic vessels that carry lymphocytes to and from other structures. The immune system is biologically linked to the central nervous system at several levels. One way in which they are linked is through adrenal glands, which in response to stress messages from the brain, release corticosteroid hormones in the blood. In addition to helping a person respond to emergencies , these stress hormones decrease antibodies and reduce lymphocytes in number and strength.
The immune system is a network of specialized cells and organs that work to defend the body from invaders such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. The immune system possesses several remarkable traits. It can distinguish between “self” and nonself,” meaning it can identify molecules that are supposed to be in your body from ones who are invaders in your body. The immune system can also remember previous experiences such as having chicken pox and prevent you from getting it again (The Immune System an Overview, 1993).
A common chronic illness associated with the immune system is rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a joint disease in which the immune system starts attacking tissue around the joints. Large numbers of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell produced in lymphatic tissue) appear in this joint tissue. Pain, redness and swelling develop. Fluids fill the joint spaces and a steady destruction of the cartilage begins (Alan E. Nourse, M. D., 1989).
People afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis have been found to be self-sacrificing perfectionists, masochistic, shy, self-conscience and inhibited. It has been suggested that people who have a genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis and experience chronic stress can become susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis. The reason for this is chronic stress causes ones immunilogical system to malfunction and as a result of this malfunction one’s genetic predisposition to rheumatoid arthritis is activated and it causes them to develop the condition.
The musculoskeletal system consists of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and tendons. The human skeleton is the basic foundation of our body structure. It provides one’s framework for its shape and size it also provides a portion of the locomotive system. The skeleton, supported by the muscular system, bones and joints is how the body moves and bears weight. The skeletal system also protects one’s vital organs such as the brain, the heart and the lungs. The health of bones in the musculoskeletal system is
important and they are effected by the amount of stress placed on them. Good muscle tone is needed to stabilize joints. Bones and muscles lose their bulk when they are not used so it is important to exercise and keep active in order to keep your musculoskeletal system healthy (The Musculoskeletal System, 1999).
A common problem associated with the musculoskeletal system is temporomandibular joint disorder. The temporomandibular joint (TMJ) is a small joint located in front of the ear where the skull and lower jaw meet. This joint allows the lower jaw to move and function properly. TMJ disorder develops when the smooth operation of this joint is interfered with. Individuals with TMJ disorder may experience a variety of problems. They may complain of earaches, headaches and limited ability to open the mouth. Individuals may also hear grating sounds and feel pain when opening and closing the mouth (The TMJ, 1998).
Diagnosing TMJ disorder can be complex and may require different diagnostic procedures. The TMJ disorder is commonly caused by stress.Many patients who complain of TMJ disorder symptoms may just have muscle and joint problems. However, stress often causes increased tension and spasm to occur in the head and lower neck resulting in TMJ syndrome. The reason for this is, tension from stress can cause people to clench or grind their teeth at night and because it frequently happens while they are sleeping many times they are often unaware that they are doing it. As a result the TMJ is subjected to wear and becomes displaced. In addition TMJ disorder can also be caused by arthritis, and arthritis may also be the result of the body having to deal with too much stress (Course Guide Stress and the Social System, 1993).
In conclusion, there is definitely a correlation between the way in which one perceives stressful situations and how serious an illness may become. How one perceives a stressful event and how one reacts to it determines the impact it may have on one’s health. The events in an individual’s life may be seen as motivating or invigorating, or they may be seen as stressful. When events our perceived as stressful it causes one to respond in a manner that may have negative effects on their physical, mental and social well being. Constant response to stress in a negative manner causes one’s health and happiness to suffer. Any illness one may experience is always worsened by the changes a body goes through due to stress.
It is very important to understand ones body and the responses it may have towards stress provoking situations. One can live a happier and healthier life by learning how to handle stress more effectively.It is not reasonable for one to think that they can lead a stress free life. However, it is possible to develop strategies to minimize and control the way we perceive stressful situations. After all external events are not stressful but how we perceive them is (Stress and the Social System Course Guide, 1993).
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