You’ve been asked to work overtime yet again, the bus was late, you arrive home to kids fighting and an irritated husband, the kitchen is a mess and you just want to throw up your hands and scream.
Mention stress and most of us think frustration, irritation, depression and exhaustion. We want to find ways to avoid it. Yet stress allows us to adapt and respond to life. In technical terms, it is the “nonspecific response” to any demand placed upon it. It is a complex system that “gears us up” to meet danger and energizes us to live life.
Think of a time when you were doing something you really loved: working on a project, playing a favorite sport or preparing for a marathon. It required diligence, determination, effort and skill. But while you were involved, you completely lost track of time. You worked until exhausted and when you thought you had reached your limit, you found that extra spurt of energy. And in the end you felt good about what you had achieved. It was the stress system that enabled you to accomplish your goals.
We can’t eliminate stress, nor do we want to. It is normal and natural and we can’t live without it. When it works for us, we set challenging goals, make plans of action, go to work, enjoy the kids, solve problems and have fun – in other words, we live productive and happy lives.
So what goes wrong? How come we are in so much distress?
Like any system, when overloaded, things begin to go wrong. As more demands and expectations are placed on us, we work harder and faster to accommodate. At some point, the body and mind become exhausted. But it isn’t just demands and expectations that cause distress, but how we mentally respond to whatever life throws at us.
Here’s how it works
Our brain is constantly receiving and responding to messages of all kinds. As it receives messages, it determines what to do with the information. Different parts of the brain are activated and chemicals and hormones are released to prepare us to act in some way. Sometimes those messages come from inside our body in the form of pain or thoughts – other times they come from our senses; touch, smell, sight and sound.
Responding to danger
Without this interpretative system, we would not be able to survive. When messages received are interpreted as danger of any kind, the “fight or flight” response is activated; an old survival system that prepares us within seconds to either fight or flee.
It is estimated that around 33 different hormones are released into the body at that time. Every organ is affected in some way: heart, circulatory system, adrenal glands, stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, brain, lungs, etc. Blood is shunted away from our extremities. Digestion is put on hold. Glucose is dumped into the blood to provide energy. Sweating helps remove excess toxins. When the danger is past, the body returns again to a restful state; your heart beat returns to normal, your blood pressure lowers and your digestive system continues its interrupted work.
It’s a great system. The mind interprets data, the body prepares to act on that information, and after we have acted, the body returns to a restful state again. Problems occur, however, when the perceived danger is psychological and not a real physical threat, our bodies remain in a heightened state of preparation and we have nowhere to go. When there are fewer and fewer times to return to a restful and restorative state, we become dis-stressed and exhausted.
©2012 Marlene Anderson, MA, LMHC, NCC