Physiological and psychological effects of prolonged or intense arousal

Stressors can be both physical (or environmental) and psychological (or mental). It weakens the effectiveness of the body’s immune system, its natural defence system. The person is then more vulnerable to harmful cells in the body and becomes ill.

Stress reactions are the physical, psychological and behavioural responses people display in the face of stressors. Prolonged, intense stress has also been related to illnesses such as psychosomatic disorders. These are illnesses in which psychological factors play a part in producing actual damage to the body or changes in how the body functions. There are a number of illnesses thought to be psychosomatic such as bronchial asthma, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, stomach ulcers, arthritis, heart disease, hives and other disorders associated with over arousal of the autonomic nervous system.

One of the major contributors to stress research was Hans Selye (1956) who identified and described the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). After he exposed rats to a large number of physical and psychological stressors, he concluded that all stressors produced essentially the same pattern of results. He believes the reactions to prolonged stress consists of three stages:

Alarm: where the individual is mobilised for action

Resistance: the individual attempts to cope with the threat through fight or flight

Exhaustion: the individual is unable to overcome the threat and the energy resources have been depleted through attempts to reduce the threat. This stage is associated with signs of physical wear and tear, especially in organ systems that were weak in the first place or heavily involved in the resistance process.

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