Stress - how do I harm thee? Let me count the ways…
Stress is such a liberally used word; it peppers our everyday language and yet we fail to appreciate the significance of its role on the state of our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
I admit that I use the phrase “I’m so stressed” to the point where it’s become quite automatic. Vigilant in its duty to protect and defend, my survival its top priority, I barely need to formulate the words in my mind before my body reacts as if in danger. So trained is my nervous system to read the subtle signals of danger as perceived by my brain. I think of it has having created a quick access shortcut , as you can with computers and cell phones, to my stress response. Impressive, depending on your perspective. Inadvertently I’ve primed my body to remain alert to any threats; ready to sound the alarm and gather the troops for battle. And may I commend the diligence and loyalty of this completely over utilised, frequently unnecessary and surprisingly health degrading act!
All poetry and lofty writing aside, this is a topic I have a deep passion for. Stress is absolutely natural, a function of our body’s innate desire for safety and survival, and not quite the picture of evil my introduction may have painted (grabbed your attention though I hope!). The predominance of stress is real, however, as is its risks. As a result of thousands of years of evolutionary programming meeting the unrelenting stream of often invisible demands and challenges of our modern day existence, our bodies are perpetually either experiencing stress (fight or flight) or dealing with the side effects of stress (what I think of as a stress hangover).
Stress can be helpful or extremely unhelpful. It can be chronic or acute. It can run us over like a bulldozer, or it can be managed and even harnessed. In the pursuit of managing and harnessing our stress it can be valuable to understand: sources of our stress (our risk factors), the biology of stress, stages and levels of stress, signs of stress and the impacts of stress.
What causes our stress?
I’d like to clarify early on that the sources of stress can be complex and multi-faceted, so when identifying the sources of stress we need to consider physical, chemical, emotional, psychological or psychosocial stressors. Sometimes these can be layered.
It is not unusual for a typical day to involve a generous list of t0-dos. Am I wrong? Of those action items many may well be quite ‘usual’ - just part of the daily grind (e.g. driving to work, dropping the kids at school, fitting in grocery shopping and cooking, working a full-time job, carrying out house chores, managing family relationships etc.). None the less, the effects are cumulative and collectively can place strain on us. In addition to these everyday tasks, we may be juggling some slightly more pressing matters (e.g. moving house, managing a chronic illness, growing debt and making mortgage repayments). These additional requirements, if perceived as challenging, may elevate our feelings of stress as we attempt to up our game in order to keep up with the demands of our lives. At this stage the body is in a heightened state of arousal - just as it would be if under physical threat. We are in coping mode, functioning ‘stressaholics’ if you will. Coping is not an issue in itself, provided we are aware that this is the stage we are in, and the style of coping is supportive and not destructive (e.g. avoiding/escaping through substance use). Imagine now a third type of hurdle, a real doozie, enters the scene (e.g. the death of a loved one, a cancer diagnosis, or betrayal by a spouse). This is the stage where coping often goes out the window and the wheels come off. When we perceive the challenges and pressures of our lives to outweigh our capacity to manage these, we can move into a state of distress and the body can become overwhelmed to the point where it reaches exhaustion. This is what we want to avoid at all cost, which means recognising the red flags we undoubtedly would have passed along the way.
The Biology of Stress
Let me attempt to break down the biology of stress in the body as simply as possible. I only want to explain it enough for you to have an appreciation of the mechanics of the body, and the function of the stress response, which will also help you understand why prolonged and acute stress can be a health hazard. Here we go!
The central nervous system hosts the autonomic (i.e. automatic) nervous system, which comprises the sympathetic, parasympathetic and enteric nervous system. The limbic system forms part of the autonomic nervous system located in the brain and houses the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus etc. The amygdala acts like a lighthouse keeper, on the lookout for threats. When it receives the signal of a threat (a stressor), it alerts the hypothalamus which then signals the adrenal glands - two little glands on top of your kidneys - to release adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, fully activating the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response. The stages and levels of stress will determine the level of activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the symptoms or signs of which will be covered more comprehensively in Lets talk about stress baby - part 2. The takeaway here is that our brains are so attuned to detect a threat that it will bypass the conscious mind, in the name of ‘speed is survival’, and set in motion a complicated but well integrated process whereby the parasympathetic nervous system (i.e. feed and breed, rest and digest, or rest and repair) is to an extent put on hold to divert all resources to reacting to the perceived threat. Blood is directed away from the digestive system, energy is directed away from the immune and reproductive systems and redirected to all parts of the system involved in fighting or fleeing. You are temporarily super powered (side note - this also drops your IQ and processing capacity). Your eyes dilate, your blood vessels constrict and dilate in harmony to increase blood flow to muscles, lungs and the brain, your heart rate speeds up, your respiratory rate increases and more oxygen is pushed to your cells, adrenaline gives you a burst of energy, power and speed, your reflexes are sharpened, along with other senses, and your liver breaks down sugar stores for energy. None of this requires your permission or even your input; just sit back and experience the ride. That is - until you learn how to manage it.
Once the threat is gone it takes about 20-60 minutes for the body to return to its normal arousal levels. Note the operative word here is ‘gone’, but what happens when we can’t outfight or flee the threat?
Continue reading about this topic in Lets talk about Stress Baby - part 2, where I will discuss the stages, signs and impacts of stress.
To hope and possibility,