How does chronic stress affect the body?

23 February 2016



I was recently exposed to a lengthy bout of corporate stress, creating stress hormone build-up in my body and eventual illness. This takes a good while to correct itself and I was quite ignorant of it all until I became debilitated, unable to work and burnt out. Can you please explain what happens biologically in the body, and hopefully show other people how to recognize the signs and prevent such a scenario developing? I am also wondering how the various creatures handle their stresses and if they also take a while to recover.


Ginny Smith kept it cool when answering Anthony's question...

Ginny - Well, let's start with the first half of that question. So stress has evolved to protect us but the kinds of things it evolved to protect us against were - oh my goodness, there's an animal there that wants to eat me. They're quite short term problems and our body deals with them by preparing to either fight or to run away. It releases adrenaline, your heart rate speeds up, your breathing quickens - all these sort of things that are going to help you run away. Now in modern day life we don't encounter a lot of scary animals that want to eat us and our stresses have become very different things and that's led to this phenomenon of chronic stress. When your stress is something like a horrible boss who's giving you more and more work every day and is really, really demanding, it's ongoing and you can end up with the levels of the stress hormone which, for short bursts aren't going to do you any harm. If they continue being raised for a long period of time they can do some really nasty things. They can weaken your immune system and they can lead to all sorts of problems, and that's what we call chronic stress.

Kat - And is this similar - I know a few people who have anxiety and things like that where they sometimes say, you know, they feel like they're on the edge all the time. And is that again their sort of adrenaline and their cortisol, the stress hormones just going over time?

Ginny - Yes. So we think anxiety is linked to stress hormones but no-one fully understands it. But anxiety attacks can be really, really horrible things where people almost feel like they're dying and we don't fully understand them but, yes they are linked to these kind of raised levels of these hormones.

Kat - And what about animals? You know, do dogs and cats and birds - do they get stressed out?

Ginny - Well, this is interesting because the kind of stress that we've been talking about is a very human kind of stress. Actually, people use the term stress in relation to animals to mean any kind of physiological challenge. So it could be being cold or being hungry or not having somewhere to hide.

Kat - Put them in a box.

Ginny - Those are stresses. So, if we talk about about stress in that terms then yes, all animals can get stressed if they're cold or they're hungry, they're not happy, they're stressed. If we mean the more kind of human type of stress that we were just talking about, then it very much depends on the level of intelligence of the animal. So we know for definite that chimps can become stressed. Subordinate chimps who are the ones who are not in charge, they're much more likely to show stress related behaviours and have raised levels of these hormones than the dominant chimps. The equivalent of your boss being less stressed than you.

Kat - What about animals in zoos? Because you hear about certain animals or things like the orcas in some sea life parks where they're getting very, very unhappy.

Ginny - Again, I don't know if the studies have been done specifically on them but orcas are very, very intelligent so I wouldn't be surprised if they showed similar effects. They've also shown that pets can pick up on human stress. So I think if we're thinking about these kinds of animals that live in social groups that have quite complex lives, then they can exhibit stress like us. The less complex the animal's life is perhaps the less likely they are to exhibit that kind of stress.


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