Eating whilst the digestive system is partially shut down during stress can lead to a number of problems such as indigestion, nausea and diarrhoea. In addition, many of the body’s healing processes are affected. For example, damage to the stomach lining is normally quickly rectified. However, chronic distress slows down the healing process which leads to prolonged erosion of the wall by acid, resulting in the formation of an ulcer.
The situation is further aggravated because more acid is produced by the stomach during the stress response.
Excessive chronic stress can also lead to weight loss, insomnia, hyperactivity (shakiness and jumpiness) and sexual disorders. Anxiety and fear are often associated with sexual problems; impotence and premature ejaculation in men and difficulty in reaching orgasm in women. Worrying about events, such as job interviews and examinations, can lead to menstrual cycle irregularities, loss of interest in sexual activities and reduced fertility. Emotional factors are thought to account for around 25 per cent of all infertility problems.
Persistently high blood sugar levels can occur during prolonged distress, leading to diabetes. The depletion of endorphins (pain suppressors) during chronic stress make pain more apparent in diseases such as arthritis. Back and neck pain, headaches and migraines, brought on by prolonged muscle tension during the stress response are less bearable. Chronic distress can also lead to severe anxiety and depression, disabling mental illnesses, nervous breakdown and suicide.
Life would be dull and uninteresting if we did not experience the stimulating feeling of eustress associated with the challenge of physical performance and the testing of our skills and mental ability. In this case, the effects of a challenge will not usually lead to ill health, provided the energy generated by the stress response is used appropriately and we feel in control and able to cope. However, too few demands or excessive demands (either one major or several minor demands) can overtax our ability to cope effectively, even in those who have good coping ability. This is particularly so if these demands occur frequently or are prolonged. The effect of stress on performance is illustrated in Figure 13.