Stress: to have or not to have – that is the question!
Some people say that they work better when confronted with stress, such as meeting a big deadline.
This is due to increased levels of such hormones as adrenaline and cortisol being produced in the adrenal glands; the adrenaline serves to cause the heart to beat faster and increases blood flow to the brain, enabling us to concentrate much better. It improves our reaction time as well as dramatically increasing body strength.
Cortisol releases sugar in the form of glucose, to fuel our muscles and mind in times of stress.
So does that mean that stress is good for us?
In the good old days, stress was great – if you survived it!
Generally, stress functions to heighten all our biological systems allowing us to deal with an impending threat such a frightening situation, a disaster … or a looming deadline.
Fortunately for our ancestors, stress was more fleeting which allowed the body plenty of time to recuperate.
Today, so many people are drowning in a sea of stress. All too often, we feel that our attention is being pulled in ten different directions all at the same time – from demanding kids, bosses, meetings, deadlines, traffic jams, slow drivers, bills that arrive relentlessly, and that’s after you’ve been awake half the night with a sick child. Oh, and I nearly forgot, the washing machine just stopped working. Not too much energy left for romance is there?
We can see that the stress response triggered by a threatening situation is essential in short spurts, and some level of cortisol is absolutely essential for proper brain and body functioning.
Nevertheless, stress has been labelled the villain and blamed, rightfully, for numerous medical conditions and significantly contributing to mental decline. The heightened biological reactions are only meant to work in our favour for a short period at a time.
Unfortunately, it’s when stress continues unabated, that it turns into the nasty guy. This is due to our stress circuit – the interaction between our nervous system and our stress hormones. The stress hormones cycle among the hypothalamus, the pituitary in the brain and the adrenal glands in a feedback loop to help us respond to emergencies. Cortisol is responsible for closing the loop, but to do so, the stressful situation needs to stop, allowing all biological systems to return to normal.
The Dangers of Ongoing Stress
But what happens if the stress is ongoing? The body is unable to turn off our stress response, and our system is flooded with stress hormones.
Excessive amounts of cortisol bathes the brain, causing the cells to shrink. The damage to these nerve cells in the brain blocks their ability to absorb glucose, the brain’s sole fuel. Chronic exposure to high levels of cortisol due to ongoing stress injures and kills our brain cells. As a result, the brain function becomes more sluggish, leading to erosion of memory and the ability to concentrate. We start to forget names and faces, and are more prone to depression.
Thus too much cortisol over an extended period accelerates brain aging, and impairs various kinds of learning and memory.
Further, in response to stress, the high levels of stress hormones flooding the body significantly impact on other hormones in the body as well as drastically increasing the production of free radicals. Cortisol prevents the release of chemicals that strengthen your immune system, thus decreasing our ability to fight infection. That’s why we tend to get sick when we are stressed.
Overall, all these body triggers decrease the body’s ability to repair itself, resulting in reduced well-being, lowered sex drive, numerous and even deadly health issues, such as heart attacks. Stress breaks down protein at an amazing rate and deregulates all our systems, leading to every age-related disease of our time.
Stress: the Mind/Body Link
The field of Psychoneuroimmunology has provided startling insights into how our central nervous system, brain, immune system and endocrine glands are all linked. As a result of this mind-body connection, there is interplay between what we consciously and unconsciously think and feel, and the condition of our bodies. The cells of our body are aware of and respond to our every thought.
Chemical and physical stressors impact on us directly and more predictably. However, with psychological stress, all events and situations are filtered through the lens of perception.
Consequently, how we perceive an event determines how we respond to it. Thus our subjective assessment of a threat and our perceived ability to handle it, impacts on how stressed we feel and how much of the stress response is triggered – and for how long.
Further, our beliefs, whether we are aware of them or not, profoundly influence the stress response and its impact on our bodies.
Some of our many negative beliefs about ourselves, about others and even about the affairs of the world, are a source of emotional distress and increased vulnerability to disease. Toxic emotions where we feel wounded by circumstances, even from childhood, can continue to trigger the body’s ongoing stress response, and seriously impact on our health.
Getting Control of Stress
Additionally, the level of control that we feel we have to handle a stressful situation also triggers the stress response and affects our health.
People who feel they have little control over a situation are more stressed and more susceptible to illness. All those employees, for example, who feel they have little control at work, have a higher incidence of illness such as heart disease and cancer.
In fact, control factors play a more significant role in the levels of stress experienced than such issues as overwork and the amount of income received! The health risks of being chronically unhappy, where one has little control and little meaningfulness in work, have been known for many years now.
It has been shown that three major life events in a one year period will make your body feel and act as though it were thirty-two years older in the following year. This means that it’s important to develop coping strategies and support systems to sustain you in times of crisis.
Thus, stress isn’t just something we can write off and simply snap out of, nor can it be solved by a quick visit to the beauty parlour. It’s a major biological driver of life-altering and life-ending health issues. We all do need to stop and think just how we are handling it.
There are many techniques that can help you reduce ongoing stress, and such related concerns as anger, anxiety and depression. If you are finding everything a bit too challenging and you would like some support to better handle the ongoing stress in your life, please feel free to make an appointment with me today.
Author: Dr Jan Philamon, PhD, BA (Hons) Psychology, C Teach, JP (Qual) Qld, MAPS.
As a registered teacher and psychologist, Dr Jan Philamon has a wealth of experience with children, however she enjoys helping individuals and couples at any stage of life. Jan aims to help people to be the best they can be and find success: improved wellbeing, gaining a sense of empowerment that allows them to actively problem solve and manage obstacles constructively, as well as positively plan and achieve their personal and career goals.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129