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How Prolonged Stress Creates Illness
We live in a world that creates stress for all of us. The way we react and cope with stress is the key difference that dictates those who have resilience against stress and those who suffer stress related issues.
The contribution of neuroscience to our understanding of stress has been to map the integrative nature of our bi-directional physiology in terms of how our brain and body communicate. The pathways for this communication include our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), endocrine system, and immune systems.
We also now know that our ability to engage in the social environment has the ability to create resilience against stress. Social engagement has the ability to impact physical, mental and emotional health and can lead to the progression of a number of specific diseases.
It was Hans Selye who introduced the concept of “stress” into popular and medical language. His theory of stress centred around the concept of a “fight or flight” response that originates out of the Sympathetic state of the ANS.
Stress was seen as basically a 3 stage process where:
1) An alarm reaction to the stressor occurs which releases adrenaline, epinephrine and gluto-corticoids.
2) Resistance in which a defensive posture or action is adaptively initiated, sustained and ideally is successful.
3) Collapse or exhaustion if the response or defence fails against the stressor, or the stress continues, and illness or death follows.
We know now that the above process occurs in some cases but there are a variety of responses that may occur. There are even gender differences involved due to the role Oestrogen has in a woman’s stress response. It appears that there is a trend towards a “tend and befriend” response in women rather than a “fight and flight” response that typifies many men.
Post-menopausal women have been shown to shift their response back towards a “fight or flight” response as they age and as oestrogen levels generally decrease. A stressful environment is also a factor in altering the brains stress response towards adaptation in such environments.
These different behavioural responses appear to have an underlying neurochemical basis in some way. Also the brain stress response mediated through the HPA Axis (Hypothalamus – Pituitary gland – Adrenal Gland) and their secretions can vary depending on the stressor trigger.
The presence of stress and its enduring effect is what creates what we call stress diseases. We all are designed to experience a stress response and it can be positive as it promotes an acceleration in performance and action towards some goal.
The real problem becomes that when this sort of “burst” mode function becomes normalised and enduring then we are in a situation where disease can show up. Stress should always be an episode or a change of state that dissipates. Stress should not be the norm and should not endure if we want to maintain optimal functioning and health.
We each can appear to handle different levels of stress. While some persons appear sensitive to stress and collapse or exhibit anxiety of some other reaction soon after coming under stress, you may notice that others appear to be insular to stress and not let it affect them,. Some people may even thrive whilst under stress, almost to the point of becoming stress addicts who seem to keep creating stress around them.
This is because we each learned to react and cope with stress in different ways in our childhood as a related wider set of compensations and defences which deal directly with threat or perceived threats. Stress can result in some people becoming “hyper” aroused or “hypo” aroused with all the symptoms in the bodymind.
The “hyper” category include symptoms of hyper-vigilance, hyper-tonic or tight muscles, hype-thinking or racing thoughts, hyper-active or moving about or not being able to sit and just be. This is in response to a perceived stressor creating a need to respond as if it was a threat.
Some people will go the other way with stress and become lethargic, collapsed or what is term “hypo” or low energy arousal. The symptoms in the bodymind include hypo-vigilance or a sort of short proximity attention and focus, hypo-tonic muscles or a flaccid heavy set of muscles which then causes a postural and mental collapse.
There can also be hypo-thinking or a fuzzy, distracted low thought inner mental world, “hypo” active where the person make little or slow movements, complains of no or low energy, and wants to sleep or isolate themself.
So stress has a number of faces in terms of what the presenting symptoms can look like as a reaction to the person being triggered by some form of stressor. Some people may also start out with a “hyper” response and then collapse into a “hypo” response when the stress continues.
Stress and anxiety then are very close cousins. The anxiety symptoms one reads about show the relationship to the “hyper” mode of stress, and depression symptoms show some of the “hypo” mode outcomes of stress.
We at the Energetics Institute have actually have coined the term SAD (Stress, Anxiety, Depression) to represent the cluster or progression of related outcomes that come from prolonged stress. Basically if you get stressed and it remains unresolved then you are liable over time to activate anxiety (hyper-arousal state) or depression (hypo-arousal state) or both.
If one thinks of anxiety then you can relate the hyper symptoms of underlying stress into the traditional signs or symptoms of anxiety:
- Racing or hyper thoughts.
- Hyper tension in the muscles, particularly the legs, neck, back and cranial muscles.
- Throat tension leading to throat trouble or infections and voice issues.
- Hyper organ activation from interrupted blood flow for fight or flight such as spleen, liver, pancreas, inflammation reactions, skin activation such as psioaris skin rashes.
- Hyper tension as per elevated heart rate and blood pressure inducing blushing or paler countenances when anxious or stressed.
- Hyper-breathing or panic attack style short gulp breathing through constrictions in chest and throat muscles.
- Blood sugar increases from the release of cortisol into the body as part of fight or flight response, which stimulates the liver to produce glucose for energy to do fight or flight actions. If not used then the body can convert this to fat and so weight increase can occur.
- Limbs can become aroused and so “shaky leg” syndrome, facial tics, self-soothing gestures, scratching, etc can activate.
The entrenched stress response as you can imagine from above will then tend to bring on issues to do with sugar levels and weight (Diabetes Type 2), Heart and cardiovascular problems from continued elevated blood pressure, heart rate and elevated levels of adrenaline, cortisol and inflammation factor chemicals. Common issues from long term stress lifestyles include enlarged heart, Diabetes Type 2, hypertension, heart arrhythmias and an increased risk for heart attack or stroke.
The body also does not thrive but just starts to survive under long term stress. Death can result if stress persists to a point of a secondary issue or illness creating mortality in that person. For instance stress suppresses the immune system so opportunistic fungi, viruses, bacteria, cancer or tumour formations can arise as the immune system is unable to suppress the threat from a compromised state.
Stressed people will be found to catch more of what is going around in the minor ailment category. Stressed people often succumb to colds and flus, infections, thrush, cystitis, sinus issues, asthma and inflammation. The gut has a large mass of stress neuropeptide receptors on its lining and so stress can inflame and affect the gut as it reacts to the HPA axis chemicals that we produce.
Stress and anxiety therefore can affect digestive health with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) now being linked to stress and anxiety as is some forms of reflux, bloating, and diarrhoea. The HPA axis chemicals also affect brain function and are even being implicated in brain mass shrinkage.
Stress and anxiety produces constriction in blood flow to parts of the frontal lobes of the thinking and memory parts of brain and elevated flow to the emotional limbic centre of the brain. This is why stress and anxiety and depression often produces a memory fog, and a loss of long term or short term memory.
The limbic system part of the brain can activate more activity in the nervous system which affects aspects of the person such as sleep, energy levels, concentration, happiness and a tendency to orient thinking towards a negative ideation. Stress produces strung out people who become worn out and lose their sense of awakening refreshed after sleep.
Some stress can be dealt with by removing oneself from the stressor. This may be a destructive relationship, a bad job, a business going broke, a physical threat from a bully, a deadline that could cost reputations, jobs or some other consequence. It may be worry over the health or loss of someone and indeed different things create stress in each of us.
Other stressors may not be those that you can avoid or immediately remove from your life. Trauma often leaves a legacy of a more or less stressed state in its victims. This is a generalised state of arousal that means the stress or anxiety may exist without an apparent stressor or trigger being present. The person is more or less operating from a fight or flight type of state of hyper or hypo arousal.
Regardless of the background of the nature of what is creating the stress or anxiety state there are a few ways one can manage the state of one’s being and reduce stress, anxiety and depression symptoms. SAD has its own set of causes and manifestation of symptoms in the bodymind but some basic principles will assist across all 3 issues. They are:
- Maintain a balanced diet and try to avoid fatty, sugary or fast foods.
- Limit alcohol or smoking.
- Limit caffeine intake especially in evenings.
- Avoid high arousal or noisy environments.
- Write down worries or thoughts that recur in your mind as it can alleviate their intensity.
- Do not focus on your thoughts but try to let them float by without judgement as focus increases intensity.
- Get a reality check from someone who is not stressed or anxious.
- Find the positive aspect of your life and remind yourself continually how the stressor is not all of who you are and that you have positive aspects of being.
- Adopt stable sleep patterns or times to go to bed.
- Exercise and work the body to relieve stress and anxiety.
- Go outdoors and notice the environment and life beyond yourself.
- Reach out for support and try not to isolate.
- Communicate your thoughts and feelings to someone you trust like family or a friend.
- See a counsellor or therapist.
- Focus on the fact that whatever you think might be coming in the future that right now you are OK and you find a positive to focus on.
- When you find your mind going negative then shift your mind to a positive thought.
- Learn yoga, exercise, or do grounding and energy charging techniques to shift the bodily, neural and mental state.
- Learn to meditate so you can acquaint yourself with your mind and so learn to still it over time.
- Laugh and play even when feeling down as it shifts the mood and releases endorphins which are great for SAD.
- Talk and play with a pet animal.
- Ask yourself what is the worst thing that can happen from the imagined or real threat and how likely is that to occur. Ask yourself what is the likely outcome and the most positive outcome or resolution.
- Go into the fear and talk to it as it often dissipates as direct engagement often exposes the fantasy of the imagined negative outcome.
- Pray or contemplate if you have a religious or spiritual belief system.
- Rely on balanced thinking rather than just blind positive thinking.
- Engage in a current or old hobby as a distraction and for pleasure.
- Engage in meaningful and purposeful activities that take one away from self obsession and self focus but which focus on someone else and offer them some support and consideration.
- Get sunlight into your pineal gland in the middle of your forehead as it regulates your circadian rhythm and properly regulates your hormonal release patterns.