And yet, we can’t live without stress. It is how our body responds to life. It enables us to adapt to any new situation, whether it is cheering at a football game or responding to a threat. We can’t eliminate stress, nor do we want to. It is normal and natural. When it is working for us, we set goals, make plans, go to work, enjoy the kids, solve problems and live productive and happy lives.
So if stress is so good, why should I be concerned?
Like any system, when it gets overloaded, things begin to breakdown. When there are more and more demands and expectations to work harder, faster, and increase productivity while still maintaining excellence, we become exhausted: physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally.
Let’s look at how stress works and the effect it can have on our lives.
We are a combination of systems that work independently yet interact and work together. Some of these systems are involuntary, occurring automatically without conscious thought, such as heart beat, temperature control and digestion. Our cardio-vascular system sends blood to all parts of our body without our giving it a thought. When faced with danger, the cardio-vascular system along with other body systems quickly interacts to make it possible for us to survive.
Our brain constantly receives messages from many different sources: touch, smell, sight, and sound as well as our internal brain messages. It then determines what to do with that information. Different parts of the brain are activated and hormones and chemicals are released to prepare us for some kind of action. Sometimes the messages come from pain; sometimes from our thoughts, beliefs or memories. Anything that demands our attention will activate a messenger system within us to “gear up” the body in some way to correspond to it.
The Fight or Flight Response
The fight or flight response is one of those quick responses to any kind of danger that helps us to survive. A quick example is if you opened your front door and found a snarling tiger looking you in the eye. Your brain immediately registers danger and starts in motion a whole series of commands and activations that will either have you fight, flee or maybe freeze. In the blink of an eye, hormones and chemicals are released. Our heart, circulatory system, adrenal glands, stomach, intestines, kidneys, liver, brain, lungs – in fact almost every organ in the body is activated in some way to meet this emergency. Blood is shunted away from our extremities, liver and digestive tracts to the heart, lungs and skeletal muscles. Digestion is put on hold. Glucose is dumped into the blood to provide energy for the impending fight or flight. Sweating helps take care of excess waste.
Once the danger is past, the body returns once again to a restful state; your heart beat returns to normal, your blood pressure lowers and your digestive system continues to digest your lunch. The problem we have today, however, is that the danger is not a “physical tiger” at the door, but a paper tiger – a perception of danger. We get geared up with no place to go. So our body remains activated with no way to return to a restful state.
In my next blog I will talk about what to do if you are aware of high stress in your life.