In part one “Stress – a normal part of living?” we discussed the work of Dr Hans Selye, the ‘Father of Stress’, who concluded stress is a normal part of life. According to Dr Selye there are some really important things to note about stress:

  1. We cannot get away from stress; every activity that requires a physical response results in some level of stress. He went so far as to say the only way to avoid stress is to die. That is, stress is integral to life to the extent the only way to escape it is through death. In which case it is something we need to learn to manage and work with.
  2. There are two distinct kinds of stress: positive stress (Eustress) and negative stress (Distress). Selye learned both ‘pleasant‘ and ‘unpleasant’ stress physically affect the body. The good news is positive stress has positive impact on the body compared to negative stress. I think most of us are more familiar with ‘negative’ stress than we are with the ‘positive’ kind. Selye uses the example of a passionate kiss to illustrate the  impact of a positive stress on the mind and body. Contrast that with the impact of an argument.
  3. Its not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.  He said many health problems are diseases of adaptation resulting from our inability to adapt to stressors.

These are strong words, and a very different understanding than we routinely hear.

I concluded part one of the article by asking “why do some people react so strongly to seemingly ‘insignificant issues?‘  You know, the classic ‘over reactor’. You will witness over reactors explode (or implode) at what seems to you as the slightest provocation/stimulus. It’s not uncommon to watch these people loop through displays such as: a tirades of tears, stamping, yelling, swearing, hitting out etc.

But before the outburst (or implosion) whatever elicited the stress response also elicited any combination of the following:

  • jaw clenching/tightening;
  • fists clench;
  • breathing changes i.e. shallow, faster;
  • mouth dries;
  • heart starts pumping faster,
  • temperature rises,
  • face flushes and or drains of colour,
  • they get fidgety and need to pace/move/do something,
  • or they go very still and quiet (like a sleeping volcano…),
  • Emotionally they are ruffled,
  • cannot think straight,
  • etc.

This combination of changes is classically referred to as the fight or flight response. You know, how our ancestors survived in years gone by when faced with a drooling, hungry tyrannosaurus or a bunch or invaders or some other major threat. It’s a very familiar reaction to many of us which is funny because I don’t remember the last time a saw an approaching tyrannosaurus or attacking tribe.

Why do many of us react as though we face a mortal danger when being cut off in traffic?

So why does this happen to some folks and not others? According to the late Dr Selye it’s as simple (and as complex) as “we all ‘do stress’ differently”. Our stress reaction is governed by a multitude of factors including our family history, sex, age, class, etc. While we all react to different things, we are all made the same. Selye, as an endocrinologist mapped the complex chemical and hormonal pathways that is the physiological response to stress. Through his clinical work and research Selye was the first to empirically link stress. Selye devised a model to illustrate the impact of stress on the body over time. He called the model The General Adaptive Syndrome, and it looks like this.

Stage 1 Alarm – represents activation of the fight or flight response. So here  our buttons get pressed and we react in a similar manner to what was described above. If the stressor is such that continued exposure is incompatible with life, the person will dies within a few hours of exposure. Some examples include uncontrollable haemorrhage, prolonged torture or trauma, exposure to noxious gasses  etc. No person can exist in a state of alarm, so if the stressor does not kill the person, the attempt to adapt will take over.

Stage 2 Adaptation – Physiologically, adaptation is characterised by the vanishing or diminution of the initial symptoms because the body has achieved it’s optimal response, i.e. the body has attempted to respond optimally to the stressor. So adaptation represents our response to a sustained stressor over time. Selye describes this stage as how the body responds and adapts over time to a  prolonged or intense stressor. While stress is “a definable biological and medical phenomenon with mechanisms that can be objectively identified” how that will manifest will depend on who we are in our mind and body.

Remember what causes us to react is individual; therefore how we adapt encompass a myriad of factors including our skills, context, our personal history etc. To adapt to a prolonged stressor we make many changes internally and externally to minimise the impact. Selye believed a person’s adaptive ability is limited; it is used over time. While many agree with him, next areas of science are suggesting we are more powerful and adaptable than we have been lead to believe. More on that in a future article.

Stage 3 Exhaustion – After prolonged exposure to a stressor or by exposure to an intense enough stressor, the capacity of the person to adapt is lost and the person moves to exhaustion. Exhaustion may be temporary and as such, reversible. A good example of temporary exhaustion is running a marathon, yes the runner may be exhausted and with adequate rest they recover. Exhaustion may also be more critical, requiring immediate attention or rick resulting in disability or death.

Alarm and Adapt are normal

Selye observed the normal life cycle requires us to loop through the alarm and adaptation stages routinely as we meet and deal with with new challenges. For example, going to school, graduating, getting a job, death of a loved one etc.  We are exposed to a stressor, we make the necessary adjustments, the demand lowers and we move on with life, hopefully adjusted, relatively unscathed and with greater resources to meet the next stressor.

When we regularly activate the alarm stage (because we feel or are exposed to numerous stressors) things may become problematic. Now we are living in a heightened state with the body living on high alert ready to run or react at a moments notice. Of course no one can keep this up indefinitely either physically or emotionally. And after a while Exhaustion sets in. We all know exhaustion: there is nothing left and the mind/body starts to crumble under the duress. People develop diseases of (mal) adaptation: heart problems, ulcers, emotional problems etc. Some researchers say that as much s 95% of all chronic illness stem from long term stress and a maladaptive response.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be be like that. Anything leaned can be modified and changed. Researchers in areas such as epi-genetics and quantum physics are reporting we have more power over our reality and health than we ever thought possible. In part three of this stress series we discuss what we normally do in the face of stressors and we start to explore solutions. In our opinion it is important to take the time to understand what is going on because from our experience we know what Selye said is true, once you understand stress you can handle it better.

To your (ever improving) health.