How do you feel? Are you well – in homeostasis? At any moment you can collide with a stressor of any form that can disrupt your balance. The process can be compared to the animal world, where it happens to a lion chasing a zebra and to the zebra being chased by the hungry predator. The stress response is the sum of neuronal and endocrine changes that occur in the zebra and the lion with one goal – to help overcome the crisis and restore the balance, in our case well-being.
Not every stress is bad. People like stress. Sometimes we even pay to experience stress when watching a horror film or parachuting. We like it when there is the right amount of it, just enough. Its purpose is for our body to gather enough energy to protect us from potential danger. If such process often occurs, our mental and physical health is pushed towards the edge.
How does it start? Critical situations give our brain a signal to start a stress response. The brain responds with a cascade of process, which in our behaviour are shown often as the will to fight or to run away. Stressful situations are always accompanied by response of our body with accelerating its activity, causing high blood pressure and high heart rate. During the periods of excessive stress, the function of tissue regeneration and reproduction, appropriate for the post-crisis period, deteriorates.
Man has always been dealing with the stress, however the novelty is in the way that stress works in today’s smart and social beings of the 21st century.
What triggers the stress? The trigger or the threatening factor can be an emotion, a memory or a thought that something bad will happen to us. If we have a feeling, even a false one, that our well-being is about to change, we create ideal conditions for anxiety and paranoia, allowing our psyche to be under stress. Interestingly, the feeling of loss of control and predictability lie at the very core of the psychological stress. Last time you were stuck in a traffic jam, you were most likely experiencing stress-induced hypertension.
How can stress kill? Frequent experience of acute stress can lead to damage to the cardiovascular system. Increased blood flow causes inflammation of the blood vessels. Fat, cholesterol, and glucose can begin to clog arteries.
Chronic stress weakens our nervous system. Stress destroys neurons in the limbic system in hippocampus, causing an impaired long-term memory. The opposite occurs to our fear centre, in the amygdala, which actually grows with experiencing stress. Chronic stress stimulates our amygdala to become overreactive and hysterical, which is shown as anxiety.
Our pleasure centre is also weakened and it consequently reduces our ability to experience pleasure. If stress takes away our neurotransmitter of pleasure, dopamine, what is there left for us?
Brain centre for judgment, logic and planning – prefrontal cortex, develops the latest and the researches show that its development is genetically conditioned. It is finalized by our life experience. Chronic stress accelerates the process of atrophy which in the neuroscience is known as the death of the neurons and their connections. As a result, we can have judgment and decision-making issues which can strongly mark our lives.
Symptoms of the chronic stress can also be irritability, anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia… The acute stress respond includes increased immune system function, while the chronic stress reduces its function.
1. Understanding our body and connecting with ourselves
Before we can effectively manage the level of stress we have to determine how much stress we are experiencing at that moment. There is no need for medical examination, a very precise instrument, our body, will give us the answer. We have to simply ask ourselves: »How much stress am I currently experiencing?« Stress can be reflected as anxiety, anger, muscle tension, or other. If you do not trust your own judgment, ask for an opinion of someone close to you.
Stress can also be recognized psychosomatically and its symptoms are: fatigue, strong and rapid heartbeat, increased sweating, rapid breathing, sore neck or shoulders, lower back pain, headaches, cold hands or feet, chest pain, dizziness, diarrhoea or constipation, nail-biting, difficulty in swallowing or dry mouth, lack of energy, excessive food consumption, feelings of helplessness, alcohol abuse, smoking, increased irritability, impatience, loss of sexual desire, forgetfulness…
2. Relaxing our body
To relax our body we can use breathing techniques, stretching and body massage, so-called body scan exercise to identify muscle tightness and other symptoms of stress in our body, diaphragmatic abdominal breathing, progressive relaxation, TRE®, yoga
3. Relaxing our thoughts
The flow of our body and our mind is constantly working, therefore it has an incredible power to put our whole body under stress.
Signs that our mind is under stress: fast and uncontrollable thoughts, feelings of anxiety, irritation, agitation and preoccupation, having difficulties in maintaining concentration and falling asleep.
The origin of our thoughts is co-shaped by three components: our temperament and personality, our family and experiences of our family of origin, and life experiences (trauma, abuse).
Where to start with stress management – sociostasis
Humans are social animals and as such we have the power to regulate each other’s internal biochemistry and emotions through conscious and unconscious communication mechanisms. The power of interpersonal relationships can help us tremendously, as the links between physical health and positive relationships are a consistent finding of researches in psychoneuroimmunology that investigates the connection between the human mind, body, and physical health. Support from family, friends and acquaintances can protect us from the negative effects of stress. The company of supportive people reduces blood pressure, stress hormones, reactivity of the autonomic nervous system and cardiovascular system, and reduces the possibility of getting ill. Quality relationships promote the formation of T cells and natural killer cells that improve function of the immune system.
Staš Žnidar, mag. ZDŠ