The emotional, mental, and physical impact of chronic stress is brutal. Toss in panic attack symptoms, major depressive disorder, and more; and we’re dealing with a cycling nightmare. We all have a stress and relaxation response. What say we understand them and work toward calm?
‘As research consistently documents, we become even more vulnerable to many types of emotional and physical illnesses when we believe we have little or no control over stress.’
In the book, Dr. Jacobs includes valuable information on our stress and relaxation responses. I’m going to share it with you, but to do it well I’m going to have to make it a two-part series. So let’s handle the stress response in this piece and I’ll come back with the relaxation response content in the second installment. Good?
Our Stress Response
Our stress response (SR), aka fight/flight response, is a constellation of involuntary physiological changes that occur when we’re faced with threatening or stressful circumstances. Simply, it pushes our bodies into a sense of arousal and preparation. You may find it helpful to read this piece on the HPA axis.
Here’s what happens when our SR gets busy…
- Pumping of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline (epinephrine) to activate our nervous system and put us on edge
- Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration to ramp-up physical strength and energy
- Heightened visual and hearing acuity, and faster brain waves, to bolster alertness and mental reactions
- Decreased blood flow to the stomach and extremities, and increased blood flow to the brain, muscles, heart, and lungs to support fight/flight
- Increased muscle tension. Interesting – this is an evolutionary mechanism that allowed our cave-dwelling ancestors to assess danger and remain immobile so they weren’t seen by predators. It also prepared them for fight/flight and protected them from injury by creating “body armor”
- Increased sweating to cool the body
- Increased blood sugar levels to reduce fatigue and increase energy
Maybe you’ve experienced one or more of these and were frightened because you didn’t know why it was happening. Perhaps your SR was crankin’ beneath awareness.
Granted, we’re not faced with the physical threats experienced by our ancestors. However, we’re still up to our eyeballs in personal stressors; and they’re often chronic, frequent, and psychological. Just think about your relationships, work, family, and finances.
On top of that we’re responsible for juggling social and environmental stressors. Jacobs includes the decline of family, noise pollution and overcrowding, a constant sense of time pressure, and exposure to rapidly increasing amounts of information and global events via computers and mass communications.
It isn’t a news flash that our brains don’t distinguish between physical, personal, and social/environmental stressors.
So now we’re faced with a problem…
We can’t avoid stress, and we can’t toss aside the SRs physical arousal by fighting/fleeing. And that’s because fighting/fleeing aren’t socially acceptable responses to stressful situations. Jacobs wisely observes, if your boss fires you, slugging her or running away aren’t such hot ideas.
Suffice it to say, many of us are left with chronic, inappropriate, and excessive SR activation. And it can happen so frequently during any given day that it becomes automatic – unconscious.
The Stress-Illness Connection
Those who endure an automatic – unconscious – SR may find themselves in the midst of what Jacobs refers to as the stress-illness connection. The idea that an over-the-top SR can generate physical health problems is well-accepted. Jacobs puts things in perspective by stating 50-80% of all complaints brought to a physician’s office are stress-related.
- Muscle problems: Chronic tension, headache, neck and back pain
- Cardiovascular issues: Increased blood pressure and cholesterol, chest pain, irregular heartbeat, increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Gastrointestinal problems: Irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain, colitis, constipation, diarrhea
- Emotional/mental issues: Anxiety, panic attacks, depression, anger
- Compulsive behavior problems: Substance use, gambling, consumption of pornography
Not only are these manifestations of a hair-on-fire SR, they become stressors in and of themselves, leading to additional SR and unhealthy cycling. I mean, where does it all end?
According to Jacobs, studies implicate the following stressors as notable drivers of the stress-illness connection…
- Marital conflict, separation, divorce
- Job loss and unemployment
- Academic examinations
- Death of a loved one
- Caring for an incapacitated loved one.
To wrap things up on the stress-illness connection, this from Jacobs…
… life without stress would be a life without challenge, adaptation, and growth. Stress becomes a problem when it is excessive and chronic. As research consistently documents, we become even more vulnerable to many types of emotional and physical illnesses when we believe we have little or no control over stress.
On to the Relaxation Response
That’ll do it for the stress response. Do you see how important it is to get that squared away before we leap into the relaxation response. I’m always more willing to approach new material when I know why it may be important.
Whatever you’re enduring – chronic stress, panic attack symptoms, major depressive disorder, degrees of mania, and more – understanding your stress and relaxation responses is huge.
I’ll have the relaxation response piece posted by February 10. Come on back…
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