It doesn’t matter whether or not a stressful situation actually exists. The activating factor is your decision that some kind of threat- emotional or physical –is present.
Here is a classic example of stress: A bank clerk is robbed with a toy pistol. The clerk looks at the pistol in the robber’s hand and, not realizing it is a toy, perceives a real pistol. Automatically, the clerk anticipates the possible consequences, and his ‘fight or flight’ mechanism is alerted. The reverse may also occur. The robber has a real gun, but the clerk views it as a toy and does not react. A third possibility is that a real gun is perceived and the clerk, who has a black belt in karate, responds aggressively.
So it is not only what you experience, but how you interpret the potential outcome and consequences of what you see, that determines how you respond.
Let’s explore the ‘fight-or-flight’ concept.
You react in one of three ways regardless of the kind of stress you are faced with: you fight, you escape, or you ignore the problem.
Stress has traditionally been defined as the activation of the arousal mechanism, also known as the alarm mechanism or the ‘fight-or-flight’ mechanism. Here’s what happens when the alarm is set off: The stress reaction starts in your brain. The image of your concern travels from your cortex (the outer layer of gray matter in your brain that receives sensory stimuli) to your brain’s deeper structures. One of these deep structures is your hypothalamus, which is the kingpin of your brain’s relay setup. It works like a dispatching station. Once the hypothalamus receives the message of your stressful situation, it sends stimulating impulses, alerting you to the threatening circumstances. That’s the stress reaction. Your entire body reacts with the speed of an electronic messenger, and you respond by producing extra adrenaline. You have heard the expression, “My adrenaline was flowing”.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Your hypothalamus is in command of activating, empowering, and integrating your autonomic mechanisms (those that function without conscious effort). These include endocrine activities (those responsible for hormonal secretions), fluid regulation, body temperature control, sleep patterns, and food intake. Other functions that occur automatically involve the large organs of your body – the contractions of your heart, the movement of your gut, the secretion of digestive enzymes, and perspiration, to name a few. But you are generally unaware that these reactions are taking place.
The nervous system that controls your body is divided into two networks: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic is stimulated at times of stress; while the parasympathetic regulates, restoring or maintaining functions to keep the body balanced.
Your interpretation of circumstances signals the command for either (but not both) of these systems to prevail. For example, if you are sitting quietly at home reading a delightful novel and listening to classical music, your parasympathetic (calm) system is operating. If lightening suddenly strikes a tree outside your window, your sympathetic (active) system takes over. You feel the stress immediately, with symptoms as accelerated heart rate, fear, stomach spasms, etc.
Problems occur by continued activation of your sympathetic nervous system. When stressful events occur frequently, you find yourself in a constant state of high arousal. Your teenager may be causing you grief on a daily basis, or constant conflicts with your boss may excite your sympathetic nervous system. These situations activate your stress mechanisms in the same manner as that bolt of lightning or the robber with the gun. Dr. Syle said that stress may be the villain in many degenerative diseases. He was ahead of his time, by at least half a century!
If you are under constant stress, your sympathetic nervous system takes over. You have seen the ill-at-ease child twirling his or her hair, the teenager repeatedly tapping a foot, and the adult chewing on a pencil. Many people are unable to shift into the parasympathetic, or calm, mode of behavior, even at times when then should be at ease. One result of an over-stimulated active nervous system is muscle tension. The muscles ‘over-firing’, often referred to as the burnout syndrome, is the result of constant stress.
The response to stress is genetically programmed to supply short-term solutions for emergency situations. If each of us were to define the nature of our personal stress, we would realize that most troubling situations are emotional (such as arguing with a spouse or having too little time to complete all our tasks). As these conditions continue over a long period of time, we put ourselves in a physical state that is not consistent with the circumstances that caused the stress in the first place.
Even if stress was caused by real danger, no longer present, it may be prolonged. The bank clerk may be terrified for weeks or months after the bank robbery, even though the threat is no longer present. Prolonged stress can lead to adrenal exhaustion, immune function impairment, cardiovascular disease, and many other serious health problems.
Is it talking to your mother-in-law? Does waiting for a friend or business associate who is late for an appointment make you anxious? What provokes pain? Is it bursitis, or that old football injury that aches as you get out of bed?
How do you react under these circumstances? Many biophysical responses are caused by stress, anxiety and pain. Among them are: dizziness, impotence, restlessness, stomach problems, lack of energy, dry mouth, sensitivity to noise, diarrhea, constipation, insomnia, back pain, overeating, depression, etc. You can probably add a few of your own to the list.
The numerous symptoms that accompany stress, anxiety or pain can make diagnosis difficult. You are vulnerable where you are the weakest. It may be your head, your stomach, your back, or an organ that is not quite up to par, or the adrenals, a gland that plays a key role in managing stress.
If you are feeling stressed out, constantly tired, and susceptible to allergies, you may be suffering from adrenal exhaustion. If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, it could indicate excessive adrenal activity. Our well-being depends on how we adapt to stress, and that depends, to a large extent, on effective adrenal gland function.
I won’t go into how all the biological activities of the body react to stress. However, we know that the adrenal glands secrete chemical hormones into the bloodstream called corticosteroids. It is the prolonged elevated levels of these corticosteroids that cause changes in the body’s metabolism, antibody production and decreases the ability of the body to combat organ damage. Many physical and emotional symptoms result.
The human body is ‘tuned’ when every part of the body works together.
When one part is unbalanced, it affects everything else. The adrenal glands shield our bodies from the damaging effects of prolonged stress. If that shield deteriorates, so does the body’s resistance. Exhaustion usually targets the body’s weakest organ system first. Exhaustion can impair the adrenal glands and lead to other problems.
When stress has free reign in the body, not only can it affect the immune system, but it can also place a load on the heart and blood vessels. Excessive stress has been linked to allergies, asthma, cancer, the common cold, depression, headaches, PMS, arthritis, colitis, and more.
We have touched on a few of the many pathways of stress. Taking pills to reduce the adverse effects is like mopping the floor while water continues to pour out of the faucet. Let’s turn the faucet off!!
Eliminating prolonged periods of stress is a critical success factor, necessary for long term health and wellness. In future articles I will discuss some holistic approaches that can be used to address prolonged stress.
Cutler. D.C., Ellen. Winning the War Against Immune Disorders and Allergy.
Gerber, M.D., Richard. Vibrational Medicine for the 21st Century.
Pert, Ph.D., Candace. Molecules of Emotion.
Weiss, M.D., Jordan. Psycho-Energetics.