The Science of Stress
Don’t underestimate stress. It isn’t just what’s in your mind, what you think, what you fear. It’s actually a physiological way of your body coping. It’s a different way of breathing, of walking, of eating, of showing affection. Everything changes under stress because the body is not capable of working normally. Stress is something we live with everyday in varying degrees. Our bodies are designed to compensate for stress and its effects. Stress is actually necessary for the body to "learn to cope". Each experience we have provides further information for our database we call the brain. This enables the brain to have a larger reference source for future stress, more potential scenarios from which to choose an optimal response. But stress also is the most basic factor which causes illness. Stress accumulates until it creates inner tension and constricts the muscles. Constricted muscles affect the flow of the blood, hormones it carries and the functioning of the nerves. These in turn, affect the efforts of the glandular system to control body response. The maintenance of our entire physical system is dependent on the blood, nerves and glands functioning properly and when stress in part of the picture, they can’t.
Don’t underestimate stress. It isn’t just what’s in your mind, what you think, what you fear. It’s actually a physiological way of your body coping. It’s a different way of breathing, of walking, of eating, of showing affection. Everything changes under stress because the body is not capable of working normally.
Hans Selye was one of the most influential researchers in the field of stress and the human response. He realized that prolonged stress actually took over for homeostasis, resetting the normal limits and physiological action of the body. This change is called the GAS — the general adaptation syndrome to explain the response and effect of long-term stress exposure. There are many types of stressors that we can be exposed to: mental, chronobiological, microbiotical, chemical, environmental, nutritional. Even postural stress over time can lead to bone deformation and muscular atrophy. Stressors may provide us with signals and signs of things that are not healthy for us, and try to induce us to change. We may even need certain stresses in order to push us toward growth, development and achievement. We learn through having to find solutions to problems, having to progress in our level of responsibility. But when is enough, enough?
The first thing to realize is that every stress on the body produces a physiological response, whether small or great. Most of our daily stresses bring about localized changes in one particular aspect or part of the body, and these changes are designed to be short-lived. But continued stresses over time can accumulate into a combined larger stress, which requires more of the body’s response than simply a localized shift. And these shifts can last for a very long time, if the stresses continue. Basically it is a neurological stimulus with a physiological response. As long as there is stimulus, there will be response, even a non-response.
This can be a vicious cycle that can make the consequences of the stress far more severe. We cannot, however, live with no stress because we do not feel productive. And we cannot control every situation and experience so there is no stress involved. We have no choice but to confront each symptom and discover the way to work through it, not by ignoring nor avoiding its causes, but rather by learning to form a working relationship with the stresses of our activity. Notice what a double potential stress has here. It is the factor which produces painful symptoms, causing limitations. On the other hand it is the signal of a weak point, which, if managed correctly, can guide one to greater strength, more endurance, fewer limitations, finer art. It is not the stressor that is good or bad, but what we learn to do in response to it.
We have an initial response to stress which is commonly called the "fight or flight response", which includes increased heart rate, constriction of peripheral blood vessels, increase in glucose and oxygen circulation for energy, contraction of the spleen to force excretion of additional immune cells into the blood, sweating and increased respiration. But if the stress continues or is too overwhelming for this initial response, then the body must shift into a resistance phase to combat the stress, a situation where the effects of stress will begin to cause distress.
- Excessive amounts of adrenalin will cause an increase in feelings of anxiety which can then increase the perception of stress.
- Norepinephrine [catecholamines] mediate an active and assertive response. Depletion of these vital chemicals can lead to depression.
- Cortisol is an anti-inflammative that will inhibit the healing process, interrupting the normal signals the body receives to prevent collateral damage and to speed formation of scar tissue. Sustained levels of cortisol can cause additional or secondary damage and decreased ability to heal, leaving the body open to illness and infection. This also reduces the movement of immune cells, with a reduction of blood flow overall.
- An increase in heart rate = heart stress and a chance of a heart attack.
- An increase in respiration = hyperventilation and an increase in lactic acid is released into the bloodstream causing increased anxiety.
- An increase in the tension of the voluntary muscles will restrict blood flow, causes increased anaerobic glycolysis, which leads to irritation of muscle tissue and increased anxiety. This can, over time, cause the death of cells leading to increased histamine, thus inflammation.
- Constriction of blood flow to unnecessary areas such as reproduction and digestion = reduction of the body’s ability to holistically function, and limits which areas receive energy, immune capability and removal of toxic material. Over time, this toxic buildup can cause autointoxication problems, which can stimulate autoimmunity. Lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are examples of possible autointoxication problems. This also reduces the liver and kidney’s ability to filter leading to increased arterial plaque.
- The spleen releases red blood cells for more oxygen capability = increased erythrocyte activity can thicken the blood leading to high blood pressure and more possibility of stroke. This is enhanced by the release of aldosterone and antidiuretic hormones. These in turn cause the increase of sodium into the blood, which increases the blood volume leading to higher blood pressure and increased clotting factor to reduce possible blood loss.
During times of stress, the body stops the process of digestion which will increase acidity in the stomach. This could explain the incidence of ulcers in high-stress individuals. It also reduces the ability of the body to release toxic material from the colon and from the urinary tract, causing constipation, autointoxication and stress on the liver.
With the restriction of blood flow and the tightening of the muscles, there is an increase in sensory receptor sensitivity. This hypersensitivity causes changes in emotional and psychological balance. This, combined with the increase in lactic acid release in the blood and tissues can increase anxiety. Experiential memory combined with this increased anxiety can bring on fear of trauma or fear of secondary trauma which can cause a withdrawal response as severe as the experienced trauma. The expectation is worse than the reality. It is thought that scoliosis is a response to trauma and fear of trauma. Hypersensitivity also enhances the possibility of hyper immunity.
So what can happen when this extends over a long period of time? For instance a dysfunctional relationship, an overwhelming job, terminal illness of a loved one, a long recuperation from injury or illness. Dealing with stress over time can be a debilitating and difficult experience. We are forced to adapt our normal stress response to accommodate prolonged stress without killing ourselves. Our reaction triggers are gradually set at higher and higher levels to prevent intensive burnout. For instance our skeletal muscle system will increase its resting muscle tension level, inhibiting flexibility, future muscle work and strength. But this also reduces our protective capacity, allowing substantial imbalances before the body will respond. This makes us highly vulnerable to more insidious diseases.
So the key is to break this cycle before it gets too far. Supporting your body systems nutritionally, providing for sufficient restful sleep, adding coping mechanisms into your daily routine such as yoga, meditation, exercise, breathing, massage... Because otherwise, you will not only be dealing with stress, you’ll be trying to cope with the effects of stress on your body, your relationships and your life.