Many of us already know that stress is a double edge sword. Stress can be good for us when preparing us for a special or threatening event. Many will be familiar with the concept of the Fight and Flight Syndrome. When a threat is perceived, our brain and body prepares to do battle or to run. The chemical changes make us more alert, with heightened response in order to perform at our fastest, strongest and highest level of alertness.

Too much stress though can reduce our performance. When stress becomes anxiety or induces panic attacks, an individual can freeze. For example, some individuals when asked to make a speech in public suffer panic attacks due to their increased anxiety levels. For others sitting an exam may be so anxiety provoking that their minds become blank and they cannot recall well-revised information.

Individuals who endure severe stress over a prolonged period can suffer serious psychological and physical health problems. Dr Hans Selye found that chronic exposure to severe stressors produces a sequence of three physiological stages: (1) alarm, (2) resistance and (3) exhaustion (Carlson, et al. 2007). These three stages are collectively referred to as the general adaptation syndrome.

According to Carlson, et al. (2007) the alarm stage occurs when an individual is first confronted with a stressor. The individual may experience shock (i.e. arousal of the autonomous nervous system causing impairment of physiological functioning). If this is a reaction to a temporary event, the physiological state will return to normal within a short period.

However, with continued exposure to the stressor the individual enters the stage of resistance, causing the individual’s physiological functioning to continue at an extreme level. This stage reflects the individual’s adaptation to the stressor. Should the individual continue to be exposed to the stressor, the autonomous nervous system continues to function at the above normal level entering the exhaustion stage. During this stage the individual loses the ability to adapt, resistance decreases to below normal levels leaving the individual susceptible to illness.

Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder

Stress that is initiated by a single, sudden dramatic incident (such as a car accident) or being a witness to a traumatic event can result in posttraumatic stress disorder. However, individuals experiencing an ongoing occurrence of negative stress (such as being a constant witness to trauma as an officer in the emergency services or an individual constantly finding themselves the subject of workplace harassment) will exhibit similar symptoms to PTSD, but this is known as Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder (PDSD). The trauma is cumulative rather than sudden.

The symptoms are the same: high levels of anxiety, which can swing to deep levels of depression. Hence, individuals will often resign, withdraw from life or suffer in silence. Triggers can set off panic attacks similar to those experienced by individuals diagnosed with PTSD, but the triggers are different. They could be letters marked as “Private and Confidential”, certain words, images or phrases associated with work (such as the company logo).

Both Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Prolonged Duress Stress Disorder need the assistance of an experienced psychiatrist to diagnose and help treat the disorder.