The Effects of Chronic Stress — stress is debilitating, and often goes un-noticed until damage is done
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Stress is normal, and stress comes in flavours.
- There’s distress (what we might call bad, or chronic stress)
- there’s neutral stress (day-to-day stuff that requires a response)
- and what Hans Selye (the father of stress research) called eustress (from the Greek eu — good, as in euphoric (good) feelings) or good stress.
Today, we’ll be looking at the effects of distress, or chronic stress.
As we’ve noted, all stress begins the same way. We are confronted with a “confusing or threatening” situation, and our bodies react well before our minds get involved.
We’re wired that way.
This wiring is ancient, and comes from a time when life was short, harsh, and brutal. Our forebears were the ones who survived long enough to breed. And they survived by having sensitive stress triggers.
Something flashed in the periphery, and “fight or flight” clicked in. The third option, “freeze,” usually led to a dead relative.
The most important thing to get is that the “fof” (fight or flight) reaction is chemical. Your brain, for the most part, just checks out and comes along for the ride.
Because thinking slows you down.
“Hmm, I think I saw a blur. I think it was orange and black, and something was glittering… could that have been teeth? Gee, I wonder? Was that blur a tiger stalking me? Maybe I should run away, or pull my sword… I wonder…”
Snap. Crunch. Lunch.
OK, so you get it. The chemical process that causes “fof” is instantaneous, for a good reason. The problem is, most of us in the 21st century are not dealing with tigers, so the need for big reactions is limited.
Our threats are more subtle.
But the body still reacts — An Anatomy Of Stress Inside Your Body
We all know how our bodies feel when under stress. Regardless, it is good to visualize what is going on inside the body.
The Heart And Blood Vessels
The heart is a muscle in the purest sense of word; a healthy heart has very little fat, and is extremely efficient, contracting like clockwork for the duration of your existence.
However, stress hormones change all this. Under their influence, the heart starts to beat much more rapidly, partly in response to the stimulating action of these hormones, but also because blood vessels are constricted.
To understand this, think of a water pump.
You can use a one-half inch pipe to supply water, or a one-inch one. When using the half-inch size, the pump needs to work harder to push the same volume of water. It is similar with your heart, except that it has a quota to maintain to make sure your cells don’t die from oxygen starvation.
The Digestive System
You ever notice that when under stress or anxiety, you feel “butterflies” in your stomach, and find it difficult to hold your food — or bowels? This is directly the result of stress hormones.
Under stress, the stomach produces more acid, which either helps speed digestion (and the desire to empty your bowels) or creates acid reflux and heartburn. This is why stomach ulcers are more frequent in people who are under high stress.
In the intestines (since food seems to move faster than usual,) nutritional deficiencies can occur, along with diarrhea.
The Respiratory System
Respiration is tied intimately to our circulatory system. During exercise, your heart pumps faster and you breathe faster. This is because your body needs (is expending) more oxygen. For most people this is not a problem, but for asthmatics or those with pulmonary disease, stress can precipitate asthma attacks, or constriction of the airways, making it difficult to breathe.
Hyperventilation is also common, and a characteristic of a panic attack.
The Reproductive System
Nothing wrecks one’s sex life like stress, as millions can testify. This isn’t just psychological, however, but also physical. In men, the stress hormone cortisol interferes with the normal production of testosterone, so the sex drive crashes. In women, menstrual cycle disturbances occur, which can cause painful periods or wildly fluctuating hormone levels throughout the month.
The Endocrine Glands
Endocrine glands are those body parts (including the adrenal glands, the liver and pancreas) that produce hormones, which are then deposited into the body’s blood stream.
Under stress, the adrenal glands produce more cortisol and adrenaline — the two key stress hormones. In response to this, the liver may begin releasing stored glycogen in the form of glucose, as a response to your seemingly agitated state. The pancreas may also begin producing more insulin, and if the stress response resolves, everything goes back to normal.
If the stress response does not resolve, the hormones continue to circulate, and the feeling of low-grade agitation continues.
A stuck Body Leads to a Stuck Brain
So, all of that quivering, tight, tensed up stuff is the first bodily reaction to a stressor. To say it again, this reaction is normal, so long as it “goes away” along with the stressor.
Modern life, however, seems to have created a “stress state.” By this I mean a perpetual state of agitation. From a biological point of view, the stress hormones never turn off completely.
Just a drip, drip, drip.
Our bodies are designed to seek balance — homeostasis — BUT can be tricked by circumstances to have a “moving checkpoint.” It’s like how our eyes adjust to bright lights… ouch, then… normal.
I used to see this a lot during Bodywork — a client would assure me that their body “wasn’t that tight.” I’d look and think, “Wow! Tight!” So, I’d push, and suddenly it was, “Ouch, ouch, ouch!”
Or I’d use moxa (A Japanese herbal substance you light like incense and apply to the body) and boom, there would be red spots, indicating “blockages.”
The key here is to get that stress is not required. The settings your body and mind are “at” are arbitrary. There are ways to reset things… and from there, to notice what “real normal” feels like.
We’ll be looking at these ways, in turn, over the next couple of articles.