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Stress: the mechanisms involved and its impacts on health

Although stress has been a part of life since the dawn of time - and was useful in protecting our Homo sapien ancestors from danger -  it is now recognised as being one of the main health problems we face, and affects 9 out of every 10 people in France.

What is stress?

Stress is an adaptation reaction triggered by a situation experienced as being new, unexpected, hostile or threatening.

From a biological perspective, stress is defined as being the range of responses mobilised by the body to enable it to adapt to pressures generated by its environment. These responses are always dependent on the perception of the individual concerned. For example, some children experience exams as a stressful situation, whereas others do not.

Stress and anxiety: what’s the difference? 

Anxiety is a symptom of stress and is an emotional response characterised by persistent, excessive worries.

Quantifying stress

According to a survey1 carried out in November 2017 on 1017 people representative of the French population over the age of 18, almost all French people face stress in their lives.
Stress is an integral part of personal and professional life and the levels of stress experienced are increasing year on year : almost 4 French people out of 10 report that their level of stress over the last three years has increased.
Although 9 French people out of 10 describe themselves as stressed, women are more affected (60%) than men (38%).

    The main causes of stress include: 

    1. Work pressures (36%) 
    2. Financial problems (35%) 
    3. Personal life (33%) 

    The main impacts of stress are: 

    1. Sleeping problems (54%)
    2. Repercussions on behaviour (40%)
    3. Repercussions on family life/relationships (26%)
    stress impact health

    The different stages of stress

    Since stress is a normal response to a stressor, it is not harmful so long as it occurs occasionally (e.g. the stress that an actor feels before going on stage). However, long-term stress may have significant physical and mental consequences. 
    Stress can be broken down into 4 stages: 

    1- The alarm reaction stage: 

    During this stage, all the senses are on high alert and the individual very quickly mobilises the bodily resources available. This corresponds to the “fight-or-flight” reaction.
    Via the nervous pathway, the body releases adrenalin and prepares itself physiologically for a rapid physical response.
    The individual becomes very alert to allow better interpretation of the stressor and to react more quickly. This stage requires a great deal of energy so that the body can respond rapidly. 

    2- The resistance stage: 

    During the resistance stage, the body adapts to the stressor : the adaptation mechanisms are ramped up to their maximum to protect the body from exhaustion and energy reserves are used up. The nervous system triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone which stimulates the manufacture of glucose, which gives the body the energy boost it needs to defend itself. 
    The release of cortisol, as a result of a cascade phenomenon, generates a feedback effect that keeps the cortisol level stable to stop the body “going into overdrive”. At the same time, the body starts to lose magnesium via the urine.

    What is mental load?

    Nicole Brais, a researcher at Laval University in Quebec, has studied the concept of mental load and has said: "this task of managing, organizing and planning, which is at the same time intangible, essential, and constant, has as its objective to meet the needs of others and the smooth running of the household". This definition has a particular resonance for women with at least one child at home, who also have a job and a partner.

    mental load

    3- The mental exhaustion stage: 

    The body is overwhelmed: as a result of the demands on it, the neurohormonal system is out of balance and the feedback in place during the resistance stage has stopped, resulting in a cortisol peak (at a pathological level) which causes dopamine and serotonin level to plummet (these hormones affect motivation and well-being).
    The adverse signs of stress appear: fatigue, anxiety, loss of enjoyment and impaired immune defences which make the body more vulnerable to infection.

    4- The mental and physical exhaustion stage: 

    This stage can be described as burn out and is characterised by intense fatigue accompanied by a disengagement from professional and personal activities. This stage is particularly damaging in that it can persist for a very long time, after building up insidiously over many years, with the individual sinking into a life of chronic stress.
    The individual’s mental and physical defences are completely exhausted and out of balance (due to defective cortisol secretion in the morning).
    Therapies focus, of course, on treating the identified disorder, but must also address the work-life context which has led to this state of burn out. 

    The key roles of cortisol and magnesium: the vicious cycle of stress

    As mentioned previously, cortisol plays a key role in the progression of stress. When stress establishes over a period of time, the body’s ability to regulate cortisol levels becomes impaired: the body produces more and more cortisol, in a state of permanent activation. Muscle contractions increase which promotes the loss of magnesium from muscle cells and into the blood and from there into the urine. However, insufficient magnesium levels make an individual more susceptible to stress: this is the vicious circle of stress!

    Magnesium: the reflex response at every stage of stress 

    The micronutrient which should be prioritised in any stress management context is magnesium.

    Whilst a deficiency of this mineral aggravates the susceptibility to stress, an optimal intake will, on the contrary, reduce the secretions of hormones and stress messengers and will have particular effects on muscle relaxation.
    To find out why and how to optimise your intake of magnesium, watch our video:

    The three signs indicative of stress-induced exhaustion: 


    • I feel depressed
    • There’s nothing I enjoy/I’m not interested in anything
    • I feel tired and I’ve no energy
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