In this day and age when it seems as though everyone has more to do in less time, it's no surprise that stress management is a growing field of study and a popular self-help topic.
Over the years, science has learned a lot about our relationship with stress—its effects on our performance, how it can impact our health and well-being, and why some people are better at managing than others. For us to manage stress more effectively as individuals, it's useful to understand a little bit about what researchers and clinicians have learned.
A matter of design
The stress response exists in order to prepare the body for fight or flight in the presence of real physical threats. Thousands of years ago such a threat may have been a lion or an enemy from another tribe. Today, even though we may be surrounded by 21st century technology and modern threats may differ from ancient threats, human physiology hasn't changed. The stress response is designed to be a short-term reaction to immediate danger that is then followed by relief and relaxation after that immediate danger has passed. In response to serious threat, the body will release chemicals such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, which divert blood away from non-critical organs in the body such as the digestive system and send it to the muscles. The heart rate also goes up in readiness for intense activity, respiration quickens, and the senses become heightened.
The wrong physiological response
As a short-term response, stress has few lasting physiological effects and stress chemicals break down quickly in the body once the stressor is no longer there; however, most physical threats in our modern world are imagined rather than real. And our modern-day fears and anxieties can lurk beneath the surface for weeks or months. So there's a mismatch—the kind of physiological responses helpful for fighting a lion or rescuing someone from a burning building are not so useful in helping us cope with our modern causes of stress.
It gets worse. It turns out that our bodies' response to stressful situations (designed to help us cope with short-term, fight-or-flight situations) can even have a detrimental impact on the body when it's switched on over prolonged periods. Digestive disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), high blood pressure, low immunity, and even chronic illness such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) are just some examples of illnesses that can be brought on by long-term stress. In addition, researchers have also discovered that stress can worsen many preexisting medical conditions and can lead to changes in the brain. These changes tend to make chronically stressed people more impatient and aggressive. This can further reduce their ability to cope with problems.
The mind-body connection
For many years, the medical profession considered the mind and body to be separate spheres with little effect on each other; however, researchers have begun to take much greater notice of the connection between the two in recent decades.
Not only is it obvious that bad physical health will affect your mental well-being, but it is now generally recognized that our thoughts also have a profound influence on many parts of the body, including the immune, nervous, endocrine, digestive, and cardiovascular systems.
Since the discovery of the opiate receptor in 1973, scientific research has shown how emotional states are caused by the release of hormones and neurotransmitters, a process that is greatly influenced by events in our lives as well as our thoughts and emotions. Researchers now understand that these "molecules of emotion" (as the author Candace Pert has described them) affect a much larger number of body systems than previously thought.
The importance of stress for growth
Stress, in and of itself, is not necessarily a negative thing. How we perceive and respond to it is what makes it either good or bad for us. There is actually a term for positive stress, called eustress, which was coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye in the 1970s. Good stress involves the kind of challenges where we feel that we are in control and are accomplishing something. It boosts the immune system and can improve heart function. It has even been proven that stress in moderation improves cognitive performance and improves memory.
The everyday stresses of modern life are difficult to escape. But if we can train our minds to view them as a challenge rather than a threat, it could actually help to bring about better performance and better health. In other words, stress could actually help make us better versions of ourselves. So eliminating all stress from our lives is probably not a good idea.
Stress management in action
While we are still running on what some consider outdated stress technology in our bodies, we certainly do not have to be controlled by it. Fortunately for us, the fight or flight response triggered by our sympathetic nervous system is not the only mode in which our bodies can operate. We can also learn to trigger the parasympathetic "rest or digest" mode, which allows the body to rest and reverse the physiological changes brought about by stress.
Making sure you have enough time to unwind is critical to combating the effects of stress throughout the day, week and month. So is eating well and exercising. Learning a relaxation technique such as meditation can also help. Yoga is a particularly good "stress buster" as it combines gentle exercise with meditative breathing and relaxation. Counseling and anger management also can be appropriate during periods of intense difficulty to ensure that stress doesn't get the better of you and your body.
As you may know, our office lost a family member last week, when Kim Olson passed away. Kim was an amazing contributor to so many aspects of our office, and one of those contributions was a column in our monthly office newsletter. More often than not, her column—not one of Dr. Nic's—was the most-read, most-commented, and most interesting aspect of the newsletter. If I had a dollar every time a patient or friend asked me about something they had read in our newsletter and then I had to tell them to, "Oh, ask Kim about that. That's her column!"
Kim will be truly missed. The last couple weeks have been stressful and that's why this particular article focused on that. In closing, I'd like to share something that Kim wrote in her blog (www.notaspiritoffear.blogspot.com) in 2014, under the title of "Stress!":
"There are many facets of good health beyond diet and nutrition, one of which is avoiding as much stress as possible. It's proven that excessive stress has adverse effects on physical health, and I have been taking that to heart. Obviously, it is impossible to avoid all stress—and all stress isn't necessarily "bad." Good things like getting married or having a baby or getting a new job all involve some amount of stress even though they are positive life changes. One of the keys is recognizing which situations I have control over and which I don't. What I can't control, I try to leave in God's hands. What I can control, I try to deal with wisely. And I try to avoid worrying about any of it—whether I can control it or not. Worry is a sinful lack of trust in God.
"God is still in control—and He never promised life would be without difficulty. We do our best to make wise decisions, be good stewards of what He has given us, and trust Him to work all things out for His glory!"