Inside This Week’s e-Zine – 03/10/2009
Stress ReliefHealth Stress is natural. Without stress we would have no reason to get up and meet the challenges of each day. It is also a vital element in your survival system. In moments of perceived danger, it is an expression of the “fight or flight” response that heightens effective reaction to dangerous situations. Unfortunately, like so many other good things, you can have too much of it and it appears that many of us are operating at stress levels which are not commensurate with good health.
It’s ironic that stress, your body’s protective response to peril, is itself a source of danger. There is a tipping point, beyond which stress starts to negatively affect your well-being and, in severe cases, drives you towards life-threatening illness. Stress response has not evolved to a point where it can distinguish between physical and psychological threat. So if you are stressed about debt, relationship break-up or traffic congestion, your body will behave exactly as if it is faced with a gun-wielding intruder. It is just a matter of degree. But while a relentlessly difficult daily schedule might not achieve the same immediate hormone levels as home invasion, the effects of long-term continuous exposure will take their toll. Additionally, the more you activate your stress response, the lower the trigger threshold required and the harder it is to deactivate.
Stress causes specialised hormones to flood your body and prepare you for attack. Elevated levels of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, activate the sympathetic nervous system, preparing you for action; unfortunately sustained cortisol and adrenaline levels are implicated in heart disease.
Faced with a stressful scenario, the sympathetic nervous system immediately:
•increases skeletal muscle strength
•decreases blood clotting time
•increases heart rate
•increases sugar and fat levels
•reduces intestinal movement
•relaxes the bladder
•increases mental acuity
•inhibits sexual response
•constricts most blood vessels but dilates vessels in heart, leg and arm muscles.
These physiological responses are obviously meant to be temporary. They block important body functions, so you cannot live with consistently high stress levels without compromising your health. Yet because stress is a natural part of life, a slowly rising tide of it might go unnoticed until you discover that you are drowning. The moment of realisation might come when your GP frowns over your blood pressure reading (high blood pressure is a powerful and measurable warning of looming cardio-vascular events such as heart attack and stroke), or when chest pain and breathlessness assail you on an otherwise fine morning. Your body is crying, “enough”.
Listen to it.
Diane was about to move from her home of 20 years, while marking end-of-year (relentlessly stressful) university papers and shopping for Christmas. One night she woke with an 18-wheeler truck on her chest. “That’s what it felt like”, she says. “Nothing I tried relieved this awful crushing pain. I finally went to hospital. Fortunately, the pain was attributed to extreme stress. They told me that unrelieved stress levels were straining my body systems and that this was a timely warning. I went home comforted and wiser. I now knew that I had limits and I needed to work within them. Having negotiated a slightly later submission of marks, I skipped Christmas shopping crowds and bought online gift vouchers for my family and then concentrated on the house move. Everything fell back into place and by new year, I was a new me.”
Here are some of the indicators that stress has slipped from friend to foe:
•chest pain/rapid heart beat
•increased susceptibility to infections
•tearfulness and feelings of being overwhelmed/isolated
•sleep pattern changes
Of course these symptoms are not restricted to a stress diagnosis, so if you are experiencing any of the above, you must see your doctor for professional evaluation.
Just as we all have different abilities and personalities, our good stress and bad stress tipping points differ. Some people thrive on challenge, others disintegrate at the first obstacle. The factors which determine where each of us sits on the stress continuum include:
•support levels from family and friends
•control perception the control we believe we have over events
•outlook optimistic people tend to embrace challenge and deal with stress more effectively
•emotional control and balance – produces resilience
•situational knowledge – we must manage expectation, so the more knowledge we have going in (likely duration of the situation, details of potential issues etc.) the better we will cope.
Some simple stress reduction strategies include:
•breathing exercises deep breathing oxygenates your blood, relaxes muscles and quietens your mind
•brain downtime- if your brain is overloaded, write a list of all the things that are on your mind, walk away from the list and have at least 30 minutes mental break. You will probably deal with the items more effectively and efficiently after a break
•meditation builds on breathing techniques and focuses on “nothingness”, calming “noisy” minds
•massage touch and the mind are closely linked. Massage improves circulation and relieves stress
•activity exercise releases “feel-good” endorphins which lower cortisol levels; yoga-style exercise has the added advantage of using calming techniques.
Response to stressful situations is highly individual (see indicative quiz details below): some will drive harder and faster; some will pull out of the race altogether; others will freeze. None of these responses are optimal because they don’t demonstrate a controlled response when controlling the situation is our aim. Effective stress management is about changing the stressful situation if possible, changing our response to it if we cant and building relaxation and self-care into our lifestyle.
Find out more
Tips to avoid stress-related weight gain:
Fact sheets on stress, anxiety, depression and more: www.reachout.com.au
Quiz How well do you manage stress?: