Positive Stress Management and Gratitude Introduction Part 1: Introduction to Stress and Its Physical Mechanisms
Chris G'Froerer, Stress Therapist
We are excited to introduce our newest guest blogger, Chris G'Froerer. Chris is a Fremantle-based Stress Therapist. She will take us through a series of posts all about stress and how to manage it, so stay tuned!
There are many definitions of stress and many causes of it. The word stress has become the buzz word for our modern times, and though we all use the word stress, we are often referring to many different things such as a feeling, emotion, behaviour or our physical being or to describe a situation or a person.
Stress is the load that we are all under at any time. Stress can be external or internal. Some external stresses can even be pleasant and beneficial such as getting married, moving house, but others can wear us down such as arguments, deadlines, financial and relationship problems to name just a few. Internal stressors are often the most insidious as they are less obvious, such as the way we interpret what happens to and around us. Many things can be called stressful at different times and in different amounts but when stress becomes prolonged, that is when it impacts upon us. We all know that stress is an inevitable part of living, but we must endeavour to allow stress to work for us – not against us.
Physical Mechanism of Stress
When we become stressed, we experience physiological changes inside of us. Stress is basically recorded as a threat in a very primitive part of our brain (the reptilian brain) which sends messages to other parts of our body to prepare it to meet the threat. Under normal physical threats our body appropriately responds with the flight or fight response. The adrenals release adrenalin and cortisol, making the blood thick and sticky which in turn makes the heart pump harder.
Blood is shunted away from the extremities to the large thigh muscles and biceps. Our bronchials dilate allowing a greater aerobic capacity to run or fight, changing our breathing patterns. Blood leaves the gut so we may feel nauseas or lose our appetite, we feel the need to eliminate (diarrhea is common), sugars and fats are secreted, sweating begins and our ability to think logically and rationally becomes more difficult (depersonalisation) as our thinking brain switches off, conserving mental activity.
As I said, this is totally appropriate when we are in physical danger, but modern man has evolved a higher cognitive or thinking brain which has the habit of ruminating (going over events of the past) and negatively anticipating events in the future. Because this old primitive part of the brain does not know the difference between reality and imagination, it thinks that what we are thinking is real and happening right NOW, so it inappropriately elicits the flight or fight response. This causes us feel uptight, with a poor ability to think straight at the time. Have you ever had an argument and become tongue-tied, only to later become clear about what you should have said and will say next time?
Stress is OK as I said before, and it is good to have some stress from time to time in order to help us become stress resilient – however, when workloads and pressures become constant and we engage in habitual worrying, what happens is that we can have the flight or fight response being triggered all day, every day. If we don’t use up the constituents of the stress response, they can accumulate and we can begin to experience physiological and psychological consequences of prolonged stress.
These include headaches, migraines, muscle contraction problems, suppressed immune system, hypertension, increased risk for heart disease, gastro-intestinal problems and sleep disturbances. Also problems with short term memory, poor concentration and poly-phasic thinking – not to mention tiredness, lack of energy and enthusiasm. Anxiety and depression are also known to be directly associated with prolonged stress.
Stress in our modern world has become a huge issue. It is a global epidemic and it exacts a very high psychological, emotional and physical price. Managing stress has become a necessary priority in the fields of business, psychology, medicine and in the field of education. It is even affecting young children and teens unlike a few generations ago.
I have heard it said many times “reality always tries to fit a mental picture.” Indeed, from my own experience as a therapist, I see on a daily basis people who are suffering with anxiety and depression, domestic violence, financial woes, and work related problems and there behind the specific incidents are the negative and distorted beliefs like, “I can never find someone to love me,” or “I am hopeless with money, dieting, exercise and so on”, or “I am not good enough”, or “I am always the one who gives and gives and never gets anything in return”.
Chris G'Froerer - Stress Therapist