We all know that Stress is a normal part of living. In fact Hans Selye, the ‘father of stress theory’ went so far as to say “if you have no stress in your life you are dead”. But only few of us really understand just how destructive the effects of prolonged stress can be on our overall health. Many of us just accept long term stress as the cost of living in the 21st century. But as you will see prolonged stress comes with a steep price. How much are you prepared to pay? And what if I told you there is another real option?
As natural health practitioner I am 100% committed to working with clients to manage stress and reduce its harmful effects. I understand the impact not dealing appropriately with stress has on our bodies and psyches. I see it every day in clinic it is a major catalyst for illness and dis-ease. In this article I discuss my understanding of stress and how it affects you and your health long term. Stay tuned for part two because I discuss some techniques from a stress relief system I have developed; ‘living calm’. Mix and match these techniques to suit your lifestyle and reap the rewards in your health and quality of life.
Stress – An Overview
Ever been told to ‘chill out’, ‘calm down’, ‘just breathe’ or had a heap of other (unhelpful) platitudes offered when you were showing signs of stress? Effective stress, or should I say personal, management requires a mix of elements; techniques, skills and lifestyle adjustment combined into strategies for your personal benefit. Being told to ‘stop it’ (virtually) is not helpful. On reflection, I think barking phrases like “stop it” at a person exhibiting signs of stress or aggravation is an instinctive, albiet clumsy attempt at what is known as a “pattern interrupt”. Pattern interrupt is a good technique when used well. We may discuss in a later article. Back to stress.
Walter Cannon was the first person to use the term stress to refer to the physiological reaction caused by the perception of aversive or threatening situations. He also coined the phrase “fight or flight” to refer to the response which prepares an animal (us) to cope with the threats posed by a predator. However it was Dr Hans Selye (MD) who is recognised as ‘the father of the stress field’. Dr Selye described stress as a “non specific response of the body to a demand”; any demand. So for Selye stress is part of life and results from how we adapt to any of the thousands of demands we experience during our lifetime.
For Selye stress is physical and emotional. Think about all the times you stressed out about something. You experience the same mental/emotional and physiological results right? That’s because stress is individualised and it is ALWAYS in the body. You might think it’s ‘all in your head’. Fact is, whenever you produce a stress response, you activate a specific chain of hormonal events in your body. That sequence results in the release of the stress hormone cortisol which prepares us for ‘flight or fight’.
Dr Selye, who published over 30 books on the subject, asserted that ‘poor stress adaptation’ is the root of all disease. Stress adaptation is the idea that poor responses to stress over time depletes the individuals reserve of energy thereby increasing their vulnerability to health problems. Selye asserted poor adaptation can lead to infection, illness, disease and death. Consider one of his most thought provoking quotes:
“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”
Think about that for a second. The big things we commonly connect with stress e.g. losing a job, divorce, demanding work etc, are actually just add to the pile of daily or normal stressors we all experience. If our responses to the big stressors are: managed poorly well and/or ongoing, these reactions will start encroaching on the ability to undertake ‘daily stresses’. But as you will soon see; not all stress is created equal and managing stress is a juggling act.
I have taken the following from a paper written by Dr Seyle. It is not an easy paper so I have distilled out the salient bits. I really like the following summation:
Within the general concept of stress, however, we must differentiate between distress (from the Latin dis = bad, as in dissonance, disagreement), and eustress (from the Greek eu = good, as in euphonia, euphoria). During both eustress and distress the body undergoes virtually the same nonspecific responses to the various positive or negative stimuli acting upon it. However, the fact that eustress causes much less damage than distress graphically demonstrates that it is “how you take it” that determines, ultimately, whether you can adapt successfully to change. [emphasis added]
The reference to ‘non specific stressors’ refers to how the individual ‘does stress’. Sure we all end up with the same effects in terms of the release of cortisol into our system. But what elicits a stress response? One persons stress is another persons fun. And our stress reactions are different to one another.To learn more about cortisol and effects on the body check out this article at About, or this one at Wikipedia.
Considering Selye draws the distinction between good an bad stress – what’s your stress balance sheet looking like? How much positive versus negative stressors have you got going on for you? Is there some way you can shift that balance? That alone will make a positive impact in your life.
Here is where is gets even more interesting. Time to throw everything you thought you knew about stress out the window because according to Dr Selye stress is not what we have been taught. Therefore stress is NOT:
- Nervous tension – stress reaction occur in ‘lower animals’ and plants which have no nervous system!
- A discharge of hormones – An adrenaline discharge is frequently seen in acute stress affecting the whole body but it plays no conspicuous role in generalized inflammatory diseases (arthritis, tuberculosis) although these diseases can produce considerable stress. Nor does an adrenaline discharge play any role in “local stress” reactions, limited to directly injured regions of the body.
- The non-specific result of physical damage – Normal and even pleasant activities – a game of tennis or a passionate kiss – can produce considerable stress without causing conspicuous damage – though some do die during sex…
- Deviation from homeostasis – the steady state of the body. Any specific biologic function, e.g. the perception of sound or light, the contraction of a muscle, eventually causes marked deviations from the normal resting state in the active organs. This is undoubtedly associated with some local demand for increased vital activity, but it can cause only “local stress” and even this does not necessarily parallel the intensity of the specific activity.
- a non-specific reaction – The pattern of the stress reaction is very specific: it affects certain organs (e.g. the adrenal, the thymus, the gastrointestinal tract) in a highly selective manner.
- Necessarily undesirable, depends on how you take it -The stress response can be produced by virtually any agent. The stress of failure, humiliation, or infection is detrimental; but that of exhilarating, creative, successful work is beneficial. The stress reaction, like energy consumption, may have good or bad effects.
- Avoidable – Everybody is always under some degree of stress. Even while quietly asleep our heart must continue to beat, our lungs to breathe, and even our brain works in the form of dreams. Stress can be avoided only by dying. The statement “He is under stress” is just as meaningless as “He is running a temperature. ” What we actually refer to by means of such phrases is an excess of stress or of body temperature.
Interesting huh? Through his research Dr Seyle discovered the body ‘s stress response consists of a predictable, non-specific, three-stage pattern of physiological responses:
- The alarm stage – the first stage. When the threat or stressor is identified or realized, the body’s stress response is a state of alarm. During this stage adrenaline is produced to enable the fight-or-flight response. There is also cortisol production
- The adaptive/resistance stage – the second stage. If the stressor persists, the body tried to find some means of coping with it. Although the body tries to adapt to the now ongoing demands the body it cannot keep it up indefinitely and so becomes depleted.
- The exhaustion stage – the third and final stage in the Selye model. (aka Burnout). Since all of the body’s resources have been being used to deal with the prolonged stressor(s) the persons reserves are eventually depleted and the body is unable to maintain normal function. If stage three is extended, long term damage may result as the capacity of glands, especially the adrenal gland and the immune system becomes exhausted and function is impaired resulting in the functional deterioration of a previously working system aka decompensation.
Note: stress is individualised – not everyone experiences all three stages. The exhaustion stage is only reached when the person becomes stuck in the alarm stage or goes through the alarm and resistance stages too often. Think about someone working in a job they hate for years, prisoners, people existing in a violent relationship, chronic money worries, kids being bullied, etc. The list goes on and on.
The alarm stage is the fight-or-flight response that prepares a person to meet a challenge or threat. The person experiences the changes characteristic of the first exposure to a stressor which include:
- racing thoughts,
- increased heart rate,
- increased blood pressure,
- muscle tension,
- gastrointestinal distress, etc.
The adaptive stage is when the body learns to deal with the stressor and so can return to its pre-excited state and recovers from the physiological strains of the alarm stage, ideally once the stressor is eliminated. If the stressor persists, the individual reaches a new level of adaptation as the internal organs mount a sustained resistance.
We humans are so ‘adaptive’… we can adapt to all kinds of things. How many times have you heard someone say things like ‘he or she will be right once they get used to it… [to a difficult situation] it will toughen them up…’. That approach takes on a whole new meaning in this context. Adapting is different to managing. Adapting may just mean we steel ourselves to get through something. Think about the stress hormones going on there… As opposed to having (or acquiring) the skills and resources to effectively manage a given situation to your satisfaction. We must go through stages 1 & 2 constantly throughout or lifetime (going to school, getting a job, doing new things etc) literally in order to grow up.
And a couple of questions keep me awake at night. We know that what we don’t release we store. So how do we deal with the stored stress most of us are carrying around? I can’t think of many people who consciously help their body return to a pre-stressed state. Actual fact – they hold onto the feelings and keep re-living the stress as they tell their story over and over again. Remember your brain can’t tell the difference between real and imagined. If you feel something well enough it is real for your brain and body.
I guarantee every time you ‘shoot a mosquito with a double barreled shot gun’ you are shooting from stored stress.
And how do we determine how well we are adapting to a given stressor? Seems to me many of us spend a lot of time in”put up and shut up” and confuse that with adapting… Although the body tried to adapt to the constant demands and strains of the environment – that does not mean we are coping.
So stress is ALWAYS in the body and we adapt. But here’s the thing – most of us live in our heads. We are continuously experiencing stress and rationalising it because we become accustomed to a certain level of stress in our body. And remember, at the time of stress, your heart was pounding for a reason; it pumped blood and hormones throughout your body to enable to you run or fight. Once your brain realised the threat had passed part of your physiology relaxed. AND your body still has to deal with the injection of hormones it made available for the perceived threat; except the vast majority of us don’t do that processing work and so a whole lot of stuff gets stored.
In evolutionary terms we are in are, in a sense, ‘behind’ our current reality i.e. most of us are no longer being chased by wild animals. Ironically many of us elicit that same fight or flight stress reaction to a PC virus or when we are cut off in traffic or we have an issue with a friend etc. Yet we do not need to run from or attack the virus in your PC…you get the point. So we are continually adding to a pool of stress that we learn to live with. Most people are so accustomed (i.e. adapt) to the feelings of stress they don’t recognize the harm it is inflicting until it’ s too late. So WHY do so many people (you?) have an over the top reaction when life happens?
Find out in Stress part 2 – it’s got a lot to do with early hypnosis and some famous dogs…