How Stress Works

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What is stress?

Stress is the mindbody’s way of reacting to a challenge. Things that can cause stress are known as stressors. Stressors can be external and arise from the environment surrounding a person, such as the chronic rain of Portland. Stressors can also be internal and stem from thoughts, feelings or bodily functions. As a response to stressors the human body releases a series of hormones; the primary stress hormone is named cortisol.

The Autonomic Nervous System

The Autonomic Nervous System is a control system in the body that regulates heart rate, respiration, digestion, eyesight, urination and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System and the Parasympathetic Nervous System. When a person perceives a stressor, the mindbody responds by activating the Sympathetic Nervous System, an inflammatory reaction also known as the Fight-or-Flight response. The function of the Fight-or Flight is to aid a person in danger. Other common stress reactions include freezing, or fainting.

These reactions were useful tools for the survival of our ancestors when they lived in the wilderness. Amping up the body to fight, flee, or freeze is an excellent response to a hungry jungle cat. Unfortunately, while our civilization, culture, and stressors have evolved our mindbodies haven’t changed much over the millennia. The Sympathetic Nervous System’s response to stress isn’t necessarily the most helpful way to deal with the fact that taxes are due in 4 days and I need to gather my paperwork to get started.

When the stressor is no longer present or has been deemed to be dealt with by the mindbody, the Parasympathetic Nervous System activates. (If you’re trying to memorize these terms, remember when trying to slow down the mindbody activates its parachute, thus it’s called the Parasympathetic Nervous System.) When this system activates the mindbody relaxes and returns to homeostasis, its normal state of existence. This means when the mindbody is no longer experiencing stress the heart rate and respiration slow down, digestion starts back up, muscles relax, the mind becomes more flexible. This process is also known as the relaxation response.

Autonomic Nervous System

How do stress and cortisol affect the mindbody?

Cortisol stimulates glucogenesis in the mindbody. This means that cortisol helps the mindbody turn glycogen (the primary energy reserves in the body) into glucose (the primary fuel of the body). This mindbody creates this energy to deal with the stressor at hand. In response the mindbody increases blood flow, blood pressure, muscle tension, and sweating. The pupils dilate to take in extra light, the stomach stops digesting food, and the bladder relaxes preventing the need to urinate. Stress causes an increase in emotional reactivity, and restricts the focus of the mind to the stresses at hand; often this gets experienced as anxiety, anger, fear, or worry. Intense stressors activate different part of the brain’s decision making processes and focuses on more reflex like reactions. Stress activates the creation of short-term emotional memories which are also known as flashbulb memories. Cortisol also can weaken the activity of the immune system, and slows down the process of wound healing.

These are great responses to imminent danger. These actions help make the mindbody stronger for a fight, and faster to flee. When we freeze, the restriction of focus can help us in making decisions without triggering that big jungle cat; when we faint the hope is that jungle cat leaves us alone because it thinks we’re already dead. Unfortunately, most modern problems don’t necessitate this kind of response.

Chronic stress, stress that never resolves can lead to physiological, mental, and spiritual problems. It can cause headaches (including migraines), muscle tension and pain, chest pain, fatigue, upset stomachs, urinary problems, anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, depression, loss of interest in activities of pleasure, and a lack of motivation. Chronic stress may also cause gingivitis, chronic pain, autoimmune disorders, insomnia, aggression, rashes, hair loss, poor concentration, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and suicidal thoughts. Long-term exposure to cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for regulating memory and spatial navigation. Common behavioral maladaptations to chronic stress include overeating, undereating, social withdrawal, overworking, sleep problems, and drug abuse.

Exposure to extreme stressors, for short periods of time can be harmful. Specific phobias (irrational persistent fears), Panic Disorder (persistent panic attacks), Acute Stress Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder may occur as a result of exposure to intense levels of stress.

Is all stress bad?

Not at all. We need stress in order to motivate us to develop, grow and survive. Without stress you would never feel the need to acquire food, learn, or to adapt and cope with the everyday challenges our ever changing lives present. Stress that leads to a positive outcome is known as eustress, whereas stress that leads to negative outcomes is known as distress. A common example of eustress is the acquired knowledge a student gains by taking time to study and master material before a big exam. Properly dealing with stress leads to the experience of positive emotions and activates the parasympathetic nervous system allowing our bodies to relax. Thus it is important that we develop coping mechanisms to deal with stressors on a day-to-day basis.

What are specific coping mechanisms to deal with stress?

You use coping mechanisms to deal with stress every single day. Sometimes you use your problem solving skills to tackle a situation head-on. You might laugh, take a walk, read a book, create some art, or solve a puzzle. Exercise is a great way to alleviate the problems associated with stress. Sometimes people relieve stress by communicating with friends and family; research shows that social support helps ward off the negative effects of stress. Other ways to deal with stress include slowing down, relaxed breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga. Participating in meaningful activities is another great way to destress.  Different people are able to discover their own ways of relaxing and destressing.

How do I perceive stress?

There are many models that help explain how people interpret and deal with stress. One of the more popular models is known as Lazarus and Folkman’s Transactional Model of stress and coping. The first time a person is presented with a stimulus they undergo what is known as the primary appraisal. That means the individual takes in the stimulus and then decides if that individual stimulus is considered a stressor or if it is benign.

If it is a stressor the person then makes a secondary appraisal and decides how to deal with the stimulus. In this stage the person uses their coping mechanisms, both problem solving and emotional to deal with the stressor. If the person resolves the problem the stressor she experiences a positive emotion and we call the stressor eustress. If the person is not able to resolve the problem or comes to an unfavorable solution she may experience distress or reevaluates the stressor and we call the stressor distress.

Stress Model

The most important thing to remember from this model is that depending on the type of stress and our available coping mechanisms we will either interpret a stressor as eustress creating positive results, or we will interpret the stressor as distress and experience negative results.

 

Other factors that may play a role in stress.

Factors that have been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Magnesium
  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Music therapy
  • Massage Therapy
  • Laughing
  • Black Tea
  • Dancing
  • Exercise and Yoga
  • Meditation

Factors that have been shown to increase cortisol levels in the human body include:

  • Caffeine
  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Intense physical exercise (often to create the energy required)
  • Burnout
  • Trauma
  • Anorexia
  • Calorie Restriction
  • Continuous Consumption of Alcohol