The Insidious Effects of Stress

When major events happen in ours, or other people's lives, we  understand that they are stressful. We understand that the loss of a loved one, a major illness or financial ruin, all bring with it the inevitable stress response. That response in humans is, of course, designed to help us manage physical stressors, like being chased by a predator or finding ourselves in life-threatening situations.  That response is not appropriate when the stressors aren't physical threats. Then, our body ramps up its energy, moves blood away from the organs, and readies the muscles for extreme physical activity. Then, when the threat is passed, the body is able to revert to the opposite process of energy conservation and restore balance. However, there's a problem when the initial threat doesn't require physical activity. Then, we're amped up ready to go but the excess energy never gets dissipated, we're left with the problems of excess energy and a body that doesn't go into the usual energy-saving mode, leaving us out of balance.

The problem of chronic stress and hyperarousal is compounded by the fact that there are many subtle stressors in our lives. In some ways, less obvious stressors are more problematic. With major stressors, like illness or even the loss of a loved one, there's typically a lot of support and sympathy that can alleviate some of the pain and difficulty associated with the event. It would not be unreasonable to seek medical help or support from professionals or other sufferers. In these ways the stressors can be talked about, examined and even relieved. When, however, the stressor is a financial crunch, or a relationship issue, or simply an overburdened schedule, typically this is not seen as a medical issue requiring support but rather how life is in the twenty-first century. Perhaps you're just meant to suck it up. After all, many of your friends are dealing with the same issues and they don't seem to be struggling. Of course, you have no idea whether they are struggling or not, because like you, they don't want to talk about it for fear of seeming weak. All of this conspires to make you doubt yourself even more, reducing self-esteem and self-confidence, reducing your energy yet further. To compensate, you seek relief and even energy in all the wrong places, like the supermarket aisle and the ABC store.

The problem with emotions and stress in particular, is that they change the lens through which you see the world. When you're fatigued, as you are because stress effects sleep, everything seems such an effort. Your brain simply wants a vacation but there's no chance of that as you're committed to your daily grind. Laughter and joy are just memories as you slog through the day ticking things of that to-do list.

Physically you're beginning to suffer. Prolonged exposure to cortisol has effected you sleep and weight.  Your adrenal glands are fatigued leading to irritability, inflammation and digestive issues. Your brain snatches energy from you any time it can, leaving you listless and depressed. If you're unlucky enough, someone will have told you to buck it up and quit complaining, which will only reinforce you growing sense of  incompetence. You will be left feeling completely out of control, the toxic element in stress. The spiral continues. You might even end up with a psychiatric diagnosis, most likely anxiety or depression, or both. Any physical or psychological tendencies you have that are typically well managed when you're in balance and have energy, begin to emerge. So, for example, allergies start to flare up and self-confidence sinks. Your risk of many different disorders increases as your immune system is compromised. 

However, the fact is, that the brain is prepared to accept these risks and even physical harm because survival is on the line. From the brain's perspective, death is a possible outcome of stress, so the increases in the risk of illness is a relatively small price to pay for doing whatever you need to do to survive. Moreover, the stress response can wind you up even more, presenting images of the future that work as effectively as a virtual reality device. You can see the horrors that await you if you don't solve the problem.

Glycene is a substance involved in stress. In the brain it can ramp up your worry and imagination while in the spinal chord it can inhibit movement. Your agitation can be increased which will also fuel your motivation to hunker down and do whatever is necessary. When you look back at a stressful time in your life how often do you wonder how did you manage to cope? You managed to cope because your brain gave you little alternative. It ran in turbo mode to survive. And just like turbo engines don't last as long as regular ones, a turbocharged brain will ultimately pay a price, even as it avoids the risk of extinction.

This example unfortunately is all too common. Contemporary life is very complex with many inherent stressors that tax us, often beyond are capabilities. The secret here is the ability to manage stress effectively and to recognize when it encroaching on your life and infusing your body.

The key to this is self-love or at least enough self-respect to know when enough is enough and takes corrective steps to manage  your emotions and energy and address the issues that threaten not just to overwhelm you but potentially to kill you. 

Stress needs to be managed as much as possible because it will overwhelm you. You won't be able to defuse all stressors, or even come close to eliminating them while they are ongoing. However, there are some things that you can do to keep the fire from getting out of control.

You have to contain the fire otherwise it will overwhelm and destroy you. Once you recognize that it is not egotistical and selfish to attend to your own needs, there are several tools that can really help.

• Exercise is one of the best stress managers because you use all that pent up energy that then sets off the restorative phase of energy restoration.

• Mindfulness is important so you can keep your emotions in perspective and in check.

• Support is important. That might be from a professional or a colleague or a friend but it is key to get the emotions out and not keep them locked inside. Journaling is also valuable for getting emotions out.

Stress is inevitable, so it is critical that we develop effective mechanisms to manage it. And have enough self-respect that we don't feel guilty for doing so.

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