NOV 12

In this article, the author explains one of the main causes for emotional and physical distress: stress. We need to understand what it is, what causes it, and how to deal with it. We cannot live in a world without stress, but we can learn to understand its causes and negative impact, and pick up healthy ways of managing it.

“I am so stressed out. I feel exhausted. Can you give some advice?” my friend Thomas told me. “No wonder you are exhausted,” I said. “You are working too hard. And you are a perfectionist!”

Stress is commonplace in today’s society. Modern life is full of hassles, deadlines, frustrations, and demands. For many of us, stress is so commonplace that it has become a way of life. And it takes its silent toll on us, physically and emotionally.

Stress has a significantly negative effect on our wellbeing.Stress affects our health in many ways, because it affects nearly every system in the body. It is said that stress today contributes to 90% of all diseases. Stress is said to be linked to the six leading causes of death—heart disease, cancer, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Today it is most likely that more people will die from stress-related illness than from infection, accidents, violence or warfare.

It is not only physical health that stress affects. Stress takes a heavy emotional toll too, with consequent negative impact on relationships and peace of mind. Stress, for example, affects marital relationships in significant negative ways and is often a major contributor to increasing divorce rates.

However, stress is not always bad. Some level of stress is essential for optimum performance. In small doses, it can help us perform under pressure and motivate us to do our best. Stress is elevation in our arousal state. If we are not sufficiently aroused in our energy and enthusiasm level, we cannot perform well. At optimum level, stress helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert.

WHAT IS STRESS?

The pioneer in stress research and the one who popularised the term is Nobel Prize nominee Hans Selye. He conceptualised stress as existing in the individual’s body as a specific set of biological conditions that occur as a response to an event or situation that is making demands on it. He defined stress as “the nonspecific result of any demand upon the body, be the effect mental or somatic.” Calling it “nonspecific” is simply to say that the response pattern is always biochemically the same regardless of the nature of the stressor. Bodies respond to all types of threat situations in a similar way

The “Fight or Flight” Response

Stress is basically the system in a state of arousal. The body’s reaction to a stressor is a remnant of the evolutionary adaptive mechanism developed by our ancestors. Our cave-dwelling ancestor had two options upon finding himself face-to-face with a growling tiger ready to pounce on him: he could fight off the attack, or he could run for dear life. To do either, his body had to be able to prime itself—within seconds—to do more than was normally expected of it. This was termed the “fight or flight” response, a term first used by the biologist Walter Cannon in1929. “Stress response” is another name for the same. The stress response is the body’s way of preparing us to deal with a perceived threat, and in that way protecting us

According to Cannon, during the “fight or flight,” the body’s stress response is triggered  and minifests itself in  the  following ways:

  • Stored sugar and fats are released into the bloodstream to provide quick energy;
  • The heart pumps faster to provide more blood to the muscles;
  • The breathing rate is increased to provide more oxygen to the blood;
  • Blood-clotting mechanisms are activated to protect against possible injury;
  • Muscles tense in preparation for action;
  • Digestion ceases so that more blood is available to the brain and muscles;
  • Perspiration increases to help reduce body temperature;
  • The pupils of the eyes dilate and the senses of smell and hearing become more acute.

These biological and somatic phenomena can help us deal with an emergency. However, when the body remains always in this emergency mode of high arousal, it affects our physical and emotional health. Normally, when the threat perception recedes, so too do  bodily arousal and the phenomena described above. However, when the arousal does not recede, that is, if the threat perception becomes chronic, we are in trouble. The Parasympathetic Nervous system (PNS) or the relaxation response does not kick in, keeping the body in a chronic state of high arousal. Under constant stress, the body is no longer able to adapt and exhaustion ensues. The body wears out. The constant state of high arousal leads to immune system deterioration with consequent negative impact on physical and mental functioning.

STRESS AND ILLNESS

Wellbeing and illness are both significantly influenced by the immune system in the body. Stress appears to impact the immune system negatively, lowering its capacity to ward off disease.

For example, it has been found that students reported more infectious illness during high-stress examination period than during the low-stress pre-examinations periods. Psychological stress has also been found to be associated with an increased risk of common cold, a risk that is related to increased rates of infection. A vast majority of hospital visits are related to stress-born diseases.

More recent research has highlighted the role of stress in major illnesses. As mentioned earlier, stress is today considered to be linked to the leading causes of death, such as heart disease and cancer. Stress is a major cause of suicide.

Stress leads to sleeplessness, which in turn leads to increases in blood pressure, cortisol and glucose levels, depressed mood, and  impaired cognitive functions.

Stress contributes to disease also because it leads to behaviours that have a deleterious effect on health.. Stress increases alcohol consumption and drug abuse and intake of food and drinks, as these help decrease tension or discomfort. However, they also make the body more vulnerable to disease.

SYMPTOMS OF STRESS

Our body is designed to give us warnings of stress overload. But we may not pay attention. Rather we may see these warning signs as obstacles on our achievement path and seek to remove them rather than address the realities of which they are warnings. These include physical warning signs such as inability to shake of a lingering cold, frequent headaches, feelings of fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders and sleeplessness and such emotional and behavioural signs as angry outbursts, obvious impatience or irritability, anxiety.

Psychologists have presented warning signs or symptoms of stress under four categories: cognitive, emotional, physical and behaviours:

Cognitive symptoms of stress: Memory problems, inability to concentrate, poor judgment, seeing only the negative, anxious or racing thoughts, constant worrying.

Emotional symptoms of stress: Moodiness, irritability or short temper, agitation, inability to relax, feeling overwhelmed, sense of loneliness and isolation, depression or general unhappiness.

Physical symptoms of stress: Aches and pains, diarrhoea or constipation, nausea, dizziness, chest pain, rapid heartbeat, loss of sex drive, frequent colds.

Behavioural symptoms of stress: Eating more or less, sleeping too much or too little, isolating oneself from others, procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities, use of alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax, nervous habits (e.g., nail biting, pacing).

It is important to note here that these signs and symptoms of stress can also be caused by other psychological and medical problems, and not just though stress.

Next month, I shall describe the major stressors (what causes stress) and stress busters (remedies for stress).

Quesitons for Reflections:

  • What symptoms of stress are you experiencing? How are you handling these symptoms?
  • Are you aware of the sources of your stress? What do you plan to do to eliminate these?

Fr Jose Parappully SDB

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