Stress is probably one of the most commonly used words in today's modern society, but stress is not new to the human condition. It has always been present; indeed we would not grow or advance in our endeavors if it were not, but it is now more harmful as the unrelenting pressure and demands of our modern world take their toll. The word is derived fron the Latin, 'stringere', which means 'to draw tight'. Our colloquial term 'uptight' accurately describes the response to stress.
The stress reaction is a primitive response to a potentially threatening situation, and has been of essential importance in ensuring the continued survival of individuals, as well as our entire species. Humans are the product of thousands of years of evolution, and survival has depended on quick reactions in times of danger. This has become known to us as the 'fight or flight' response.
Our ancestors developed this reaction for a quick burst of physical activity in situations calling for a life or death stuggle, or a fast run to safety. Today, however, these reactions that we have evolved to protect ourselves against perceived danger are viewed as unacceptable. To attack and fight a co-worker that has upset us would most likely result in legal ramifications, while running away from a tense business meeting would be seen as a mental abberation.
Until recently, it was thought that stress was the result of external forces exerting pressure on an individual, but this does not explain why one person may react calmly and another person may be completely devastated by a similar situation. It is now accepted that intensity of and reaction to stress is determined by how well a person feels that they can cope with the identified threat. The hormonal and chemical defense mechanisms have been retained as a means of protection, but now have a limited outlet. The inability to express a physical response to a stressful situation means that our natural instincts are being suppressed and turned inward, leading to a vast array of problems.
Although any number of factors can set a stress reaction in motion, the response is always the same. When confronted by a situation perceived as being threatening, our thoughts trigger two branches of the central nervous system. First, the sympathetic system fires us up, readying us for action. When the situation has resolved, the parasympathetic system cools us off, and returns us back to a normal state.
To fire us up, the sympathetic system initiates actions designed to activate all the major systems of the body. Neurotransmitters such as adrenaline flood the bloodstream, raising blood pressure, activating the immune system, and slowing or stopping the digestive process. Raised blood pressure increases blood supply to the brain, improving judgment and decision-making, and to the muscles, allowing for a burst of heightened activity. Extra fuel is taken from stored sugars and fats, providing additional energy. The immune system prepares to deal with potential wounds, reading itself to repel foreign pathogens and replace lost blood components. Blood is shunted away from the the digestive organs to provide more volume for the muscles to use. In extreme cases, the bowel and bladder involuntarily empty themselves, so as to relieve the body of extra weight and internal pressure that might slow us down.
When the perceived danger has passed, the parasympathetic system takes over, slowing the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, dissapating the heightened immune response, and bringing digestion back on line. In short, undoing the all the actions set in motion by the sympathetic system, and returning the body to it's normal state.
All this is well and good - for short term stress - 'fight or flight'. Problems occur when stress is long term and unresolved. Even the low grade stress that is taken for granted as a part of our lives, when constant and not resolved with physical response, keeps our body systems on red alert all the time, and wears them down. High blood pressure, elevated heart rate and arrythmias are common today. Gastric distress in the form irritable bowel syndrome and ulcers abound. Immune systems, unable maintain such an increased level of readiness, are depleted, leading us to catch every little bug going around, or to turn and attack the body itself. Heart attack, migraines, allergies, menstrual difficulties, thyroid malfunction, diabetes, depression, skin disorders, all can be directly related to constant uremitted stress, as can chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, neuralgia, and many types of cancer. Some researchers believe that as much as 80% of modern illnesses have stress related causes.
Everyone is confronted daily with stressful situations. The extent to which these events lead to ill health will depend largely on a person's capacity to cope with those situations. The way that we perceive events affects the stress response more than the actual ability to cope with them.
We may not be able to change the stressful situations, but we can alter how we cope with them.
Regular exercise, if not pursued relentlessly, (causing more stress!), can help to activate the parasympathetic system, and reduce the stress response. Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, or qigong are all useful as well, and help to rebalance the body's systems. Proper diet and adequate hydration can help to provide essential nutrients and transport them to where we need them, and help to eliminate wastes. Massage is a proven stress-buster. Interacting with a pet, a rewarding hobby, having and being a good friend, volunteering for a worthy cause, these are ways to gain control of our stresses. And let's not forget that maintaining a positive outlook is probably one of the most effective ways to reduce the effects of stress. If we can 'worry ourselves sick', then it only stands to reason that we can 'think ourselves well'.
Our stress response has been with us for a very long time. Humans seem to be evolving faster than our response systems can keep up, so it is up to us to arm ourselves with the tools we need to cope.