Like it or not, stress is a part of our lives. We have been hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect us from threats from predators and other aggressors. Although we have evolved from the threat of saber tooth tigers and large prehistoric predators, we still face multiple demands each day and our body treats these hassles as threats.
Stress physiologists Hans Selye and Richard Lazarus define stress as “…the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it” and “…any event in which environmental demands, internal demands, or both tax or exceed the adaptive resources of an individual, social system, or tissue system.” In many societies the term stress is often associated with a negative situation.
When one encounters a perceived threat, i.e. a large dog barks at you while on a walk, a tiny region at the base of your brain, the hypothalamus, sets off your body’s alarm system. Through both nerve and hormonal signals, your adrenal glands located atop your kidneys release hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenalin increases your heart rate, blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs nonessential or even detrimental function in a fight-or-flight situation.
This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear. This stress-response system is usually self-limiting and once the threat has passed, the hormone levels return to normal. However, when stressors are always present or we constantly feel under attack, this system stays turned on. This puts us at greater risk of numerous health problems including:
- Heart disease
- Type II diabetes
- Sleep problems
- Weight gain
- Memory and concentration impairment
A Swedish study of 800 women followed for 38 years showed those with increased mid-life stress had a 21% increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Long term activation of the stress-response system leads to over exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones. The stress pathways work together but they each uniquely affect the function of bodily processes. The “fight” or “flight” responses cause the heart to beat faster and harder releasing more free fatty acids into the blood. The “defeat” response stress pathway can lead to enhanced fat creation and deep abdominal obesity due to cortisol aiding in production of baby fat cells which become mature fat cells. It also leads to the breakdown of tissue and suppression of the immune system. This can then lead to the above named health problems and why it is so important to learn HEALTHY ways to cope with stressors.
Your reaction to a potentially stressful event is unique to you. How we react to stressors in our lives is affected by genetics and life experiences. We may not be able to change our current situation, but we can learn to identify what stresses us and take steps to manage the impact these events have on us and learn how to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally in the face of stressful situations.
Some stress management strategies include:
- Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise. Exercise relieves feelings of frustration and gives you a lift via endorphins, the body’s mood elevator. It allows you to “burn off” stress. It doesn’t have to be heart-pounding, sweat dripping exercise to be effective. Yoga and tai chi (moving meditation) are just as effective.
- Visualization. Close your eyes and imagine a pleasant scene, maybe a childhood memory, or favorite vacation.
- Foster healthy friendships.
- Express your feelings.
- Sense of humor.
- Seek professional counseling when needed.
The payoff for learning to manage stress is peace of mind and perhaps, a longer, healthier life.
Kris Miller, NP
Billings OB-GYN Associates