Stress may be experienced as feelings of being overloaded, of being tense, too wound-up or pre-occupied by worries – but is there an antidote, and if so, what is it?
Sapolsky (3), an expert in the field of stress, considered stress to be the physiological, psychological, emotional and behavioural response of an individual seeking to adapt and adjust to the internal and or external pressures and demands being faced, leading to a fight or flight reaction.
Internal pressures include thoughts, feelings, memories, images and so on, while external pressures are the demands placed on us by the “outside world”, including our access to resources, friends, family, job, and community, to name only a few.
Our stress response has evolved to spur us to take action when it is needed, but as we will soon see from the physiology of the stress response, it has been designed by nature and natural selection to save our lives when we are faced by a short-term, mostly physical crisis. In a case like this, the appropriate action would be to run away or stand and fight – so it isn’t particularly suited to the types of stressors we are faced with in the modern world.
Since the human stress response was designed to be short lived, when it is turned on for long periods of time, it becomes damaging to the very organism it is designed to protect. But just how common is stress and distress?
Do You Suffer from Stress?
According to the Stress and Wellbeing in Australia Survey (2014), one in four Australians report experiencing moderate to severe levels of stress and distress, with almost one in five (17%) reporting that their current stress levels were having a very strong impact on their physical health, and more than one in five (22%) reporting that mental health issues were a source of stress. Just over seven in ten reported that their current stress was having at least some impact on their mental health and moreover, stress was cited as both a cause and effect of mental health issues.
Financial issues were cited as the leading cause of stress, followed by family issues, personal health issues, issues related to trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle, as well as issues with the health of close loved ones.
It seems that experiencing stress is endemic to our modern lives, yet considering the damage that long term stress does to our physical, emotional, and psychological wellbeing, as well as the detrimental effects it can have on our relationships, are we to just accept that stress is a part of life, or is there something we can do about it?
The Downside of Chronic Stress
The stress response has been designed to “save our bacon” when we are faced by imminent danger, to push us at lighting speed into a fight, flight or freeze response.
Imagine one of our ancestors, hunting on the savannah, when suddenly, out the corner of his eye, he spots a lion – but worse, the lion spots him. Instantaneously the stress response kicks in, secreting the necessary hormones to ensure that energy is immediately mobilised and released as glucose into the blood, and sent with urgency to where it is most needed – the muscles.
To ensure that delivery is rapid, the heart rate, blood pressure and the breathing rate increase, all with the purpose of getting oxygen and glucose to the muscles without delay.
Simultaneously, bodily processes that are unnecessary for immediate survival are shut down – eg digestion, growth and reproductive processes, as well as non-urgent tissue repair.
In the short term, the immune system defences are enhanced and attention becomes clearly focused on the source of the stress, narrowing to exclude any unnecessary stimuli. This is not the time to stop and smell the proverbial roses! With an effective and efficient stress response, our ancestor is furnished with the ability to run, freeze or fight as the situation demands, responding automatically, and increasing his chances of living to hunt again the following day.
Fortunately many of our ancestors survived such stressful situations, passing on their genes to us modern humans. Fortunately too, we no longer live in such life-threatening, dangerous environments, but unfortunately, our stress response system has remained unchanged, designed to save our lives from threat of injury or death. This stress response that motivates us to fight or flee is not an appropriate response to dealing with an unpaid mortgage, to help us avoid future embarrassment, or prepare for an important exam.
A mild degree of stress is indeed useful to motivate us to take the necessary action, but if it continues unabated we spend more time being pushed around by the stress response and less time taking effective action.
Yet, when we are faced by the demands of modern life, this very same stress response is stimulated and we can get caught up in unhelpful ruminative loops (1) where the more we think about a stressor, the more we stimulate the stress response, stimulating more thoughts and more stress, so that the stressor never really goes away. Our stress response is permanently turned on or running on autopilot in the background.
The problem is that the processes activated by the stress response are highly taxing on our bodies if continuously or frequently activated. What we are essentially doing is living life as if we are constantly responding to a crisis, a crisis that has no end.
High blood pressure serves us well if we need to escape a lion, but it is an “expensive” strategy; if it is constantly high, our cardiovascular system will, over time, begin to show the consequences. Left unchecked, this system is damaging psychologically, emotionally and physically, with sufferers experiencing chronic fatigue, sleep disruption, muscle atrophy, adult onset diabetes, cardiovascular damage, ulcers, reproductive problems and stunted growth in children, and more.
Unfortunately too, many of us know that stress is damaging to our health, but this then represents another worry to add to the list as we begin to worry about the damage we are doing to ourselves by stressing!
So what is the solution?
Undermining the Effects of Stress
At a basic level our nervous systems can be divided into two main parts – the central nervous system that encompasses the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, encompassing the nerve tissue outside of the central nervous system.
The peripheral nervous system consists of two main parts – the autonomic nervous system and the somatic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is centrally involved in the stress response. Its workings are automatic, happening outside of our conscious awareness, as the name implies. Broadly, it is a system that it either designed to speed things up (as we saw in the stress-response earlier) or slow things down. An analogy of this system is that is is comparable to the gas and brake pedals in our cars. The stress response essentially pushes hard on the gas; we need to learn how to apply the brakes in our bodies so that we can slow down or even stop the effects of stress. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is the accelerator, while the parasympathetic branch is the braking system.
Accessing the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Returning again to the Stress and Wellbing Survey (2014), the strategies that respondents found most effective were, in order of strength of efficiency:
- doing something relaxing;
- spending time with family and friends;
- spending time doing a hobby;
- doing something active; and
- listening to music.
Research in the field of positive psychology and human flourishing has shown that there are many specific strategies and practices that fit within these broad categories that people can select, finding the most effective methods that suit their own personalities and lifestyle. In other words, you can develop your own tailored antidote for stress!
The practices of compassion and self-compassion can also play a powerful role in undermining the effects of stress, bringing a sense of balance to life in the modern world. Compassion changes the relationship that you have with others and yourself, moving from criticism towards understanding and kind encouragement, fundamentally changing the way you deal with yourself and others when things go wrong, and has important implications for how we guide ourselves and get back on track (2).
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with individuals and couples, Cobus Kleynhans has specialist training in the techniques and practice of Couples and Family Therapy.
He has pursued extensive development in mindfulness-based treatment models, and is excited by the wealth of research revealing how mindfulness is effective in helping to enhance and promote healthy brain function.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.
- Gilbert, P. (2009). The compassionate mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press.
- Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: William Morrow.
- Sapolsky, R. M. (1994). Why zebras don’t get ulcers: A guide to stress, stress related diseases, and coping. New York: W.H. Freeman.