What is stress?
Stress is an ubiquitous and multilayered phenomenon that is an entrenched reality of our daily postmodern lives. In effect, the stress response has played a significant role in the evolution of our nervous system and was crucial for our survival on this planet. As hunter gathers we experienced acute stress when there were life-threatening perils from the environment confronting us for e.g. a wild animal that crossed the path of our foraging ancestors. In such instances, the human body would mobilize itself defensively and activate the autonomic nervous system to a fight, flight or freeze response to meet the demands of the situation.
When an organism is stressed and in either fight of flight mode, there are profound alterations due to the enervation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. Noticeable psychophysiological shifts take place such as an increase in the heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension, sweat activity in conjunction with a cascade of neuro-endocrinological alterations. The adrenal-hypothalamus- pituitary axis gets activated and there are rapid secretions of the stress hormone cortisol along with blood moving from the periphery of the body i.e. the limbs to the core i.e. to the heart and lungs.
These psychosomatic shifts allow the organism to speed up the action that needed to be taken, which in most cases was either confrontation or agitated escape. However, in freeze mode, which occurs in profound experiences of trauma, the parasympathetic nervous, system dominates and the body drops in pressure, temperature, and mobility simulating a corpse. From an evolutionary perspective, the freeze mode was useful as on occasion predators may loose interest if the prey is already dead.
According to one of the pioneers in stress research Hans Seyle, upto a certain point stress is beneficial as it helps us take effective action when facing challenging conditions and this can be understood as “eu-stress.” As such, the stress response to a particular point helps us become focused and efficient and enables us to get things done while simultaneously it protects us from negative consequences that might pertain to our survival. Yet there is a certain threshold value to stress and beyond that stress starts becoming “di-stress” and it starts pathologically eroding and wearing and tearing down our cardiac-respiratory, immune, gastrointestinal and muscular-skeleton systems.
Stress becomes di-stress when the stress response is provoked chronically, which is, unfortunately the zeitgeist of our times. Today acute stress is replaced by chronic stress, where a biological threat is now a psychological one. We react to not finding a parking spot before an important meeting in the same way our ancestors reacted to encountering an avalanche near a mountain that might crush them. Our bodies have not caught up with the evolutionary shifts in our life style and so in a nutshell, our bodies are over reacting to the mundane pressures and irritants of every day living.
Due to a revolution in our material culture, life is now becoming faster and faster . . . we have faster computers, faster cars, faster communications and often our bodies lag behind and we have to whip ourselves to keep up our pace, to perform, to meet deadlines and to make money. As a result, our default existential state is that of an incessant low-grade activation of the autonomic nervous system, which keeps the bodymind latently stressed.
In busy urban areas, especially, we are almost all the time normalized to being unconsciously stressed to the point that we do not realize that we are stressed. This psychologically predisposes us to depression, irritation, frustration, mood swings, and angry outbursts, all of which underscore psychoemotional disturbances. Simultaneously we are prone to worsening any pre-existing medical disorder and susceptible to creating the causes and circumstances for diseases to take root in our bodyminds, highlighting psychosomatic over drive. Diabetes, hypertension, colitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, eczema and ulcers are a few stress related conditions.
How do we know we are stressed?
Since stress is an integral part of our lives, learning how to identify when we are stressed and what to do about de-stressing ourselves becomes paramount for our psychophysiological health and well being. Stress is a polyvalent experience and has cognitive, emotional, physiological and behavioral ramifications.
Below is a brief exegesis of some of the symptoms that manifest in us in relation to each category within which our stress response can be observed. It is important to recognize if any of these are being embodied in our own experience in order to assess how stressed one is and moreover, the ways in which we create stress for ourselves through our perceptions. Regarding a demand from the environment as either a threat or a challenge depends very much on our sense of self esteem and feelings of being resourced and resilient.
Cognitive dimensions: ruminating repetitive thoughts that are automatic and pessimistic; negative interpretations of life events; and a predisposition to play the victim.
Emotional dimensions: feelings of anxiety, panic, irritability, agitation, frustration, jitteriness, anger, impatience, overwhelm, being out of control
Physical dimensions: changes in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, muscle tension, sweat activity, body temperature, fatigue, migraines, stomach aches, palpitations
Behavioral dimensions: lack of exercise, eating excessively, indulging in unhealthy foods, smoking, drinking, abusing drugs, unnecessary shopping
Some useful guidelines to regulate stress
While we cannot prevent stress in our lives, we can definitely shift our emotional reactions to stress. In order to modify how we are oriented to overwhelming life events it is quintessential to make life style changes that allow us to slow down and relax. Some suggestions to safe guard ourselves from being chronically stressed are the following:
1) Mediation, yoga, tai chi, qui gong
2) Physical exercise
3) Spending time in nature
4) Healthy nutrition
5) Listening to music and appreciating the arts in general
6) Meditation and yoga
7) Enjoying conviviality with family and friends
8) Going on holiday
9) Sleeping a full eight hours
10) Having a massage
11) Adopting a pet such as dog, cat, hamster, even having an aquarium
12) Working with a mental health professional to see your patterns of stress, how you perpetuate them and ultimately to dis-identify with them