Chapter 1: Understanding How Stress Affects You
Who I am is enough. I am open to learning and growing. I pay attention to the feelings in my body and I take loving, respectful and compassionate care of myself.” (Deep breath)
Stress is a part of our lives. It always has been and always will be. The issue of stress and how we are affected by it is related to the extent, type, and duration of stress. We used to have noticeable and tangible breaks from stress. We were not connected and potentially available 24/7. We did not have cell phones, faxes, computers, pagers, or answering machines. When you were out, you were just out, and unavailable. That meant you got a break from whatever was going on at work or at home. You had downtime, and therefore, your body was able to rest, relax, and refresh. That meant that everything could slow down. We do not have such breaks today unless we consciously decide to turn everything off, and then we have to consciously decide not to worry about what we’re missing.
We see the effects of stress, starting with school-age children. Many schools now use computers to enable students to keep up with their work—even when they are out sick. Students are expected to be in touch and stay in touch with their work and classmates both in and out of school, and even during vacations. Because we live in a global economy, work for many people piles up while they sleep. Instead of waking up to a fresh start, there are potentially dozens of e-mails waiting at sunrise.
Our bodies don’t know the difference between good stress and bad stress. We define stress as good or bad, and with that definition, we set the stage for how we will feel about the stress we are experiencing. For example, we were extraordinarily excited to finally be producing this book, which we had thought about for two years before we actually put keyboard to screen (instead of pen to paper). Though excited, we were also apprehensive and tense. We knew that we were stressed. We talked about how the stress sat in our necks or shoulders. We also felt many urges to get up and do other things, such as wash clothes, eat, cook, take a nap, or make phone calls (unrelated to writing this book). We shared how our minds would wander to many other activities—lists of things to do, distractions about the weather, appointments, and so much more. Our list could go on and on. The point is that these are all stress reactions and they affect us. In this chapter, we are looking at how stress affects you so that you can be aware of what’s happening in your body and mind so that you will be able to cope with your stress and not have stress control you.
Whether you label the stress you are going through “good stress” or “bad stress,” the effects are the same. What are the physical responses to stressful situations? We start with the fight-or-flight response, centered in the oldest part of the brain in the limbic system. The limbic system is the seat of the most basic emotions (i.e., survival, safety, defense of life, bonding to mom/dad/family/pack). No human being could survive without a functioning limbic system. This part of our brain functions before we have attained rational thought—before we can decide to do something about anything. Anger, rage, and fear also reside here; they also have their place. There is an increase in blood pressure caused by the tightening of muscles in the blood vessels; this occurs in most of our muscles when we are preparing to take action in response to perceived danger from a known or unknown source. At the outset, your heart rate also increases in order to increase the blood supply to your muscles. Your respiratory rate increases, but your breaths are usually shallower and oxygenation of the tissues may suffer. Your adrenal glands pour adrenalin/epinephrine into your blood to hasten and strengthen your responses.
There is nothing wrong with any of these responses. The wisdom of the body is perfect. The response is always appropriate to the perceived situation. The problems arise when there is no respite from the stress, and your body continues to respond to a chronic situation as if it were acute. The result is the breakdown of tissue and function. It depends on the stimulus, the perceived or real danger, and the person.
Imagine that you are driving in your car on the highway and there is some real danger as someone cuts you off. Your reflexes are faster; time seems to slow down as you steer around the other car. In an instant, you have checked the mirrors, hit the gas or brake, and made a dozen decisions that saved your life. Then maybe you say a bad word or give the “turnpike salute.” Some people will be so upset they will pull over for a few minutes to calm down, cry, or even throw up. Some people will rant all day to anyone who will listen about that so-and-so who cut them off.
Once you are through the event, however, you should be able to let go of that stress reaction. There is a range of intensities in reaction that may occur, but as long as we can get a resolution in a reasonable amount of time and the recovery response can take place, then all is well and there’s no harm done. What happens, though, when you do not feel your stress reaction(s) get resolved? Where does it take up residence in your body?
Remember, your body doesn’t know the difference between good stress and bad stress. It will still occupy your body physically, emotionally, and mentally. Hans Selye, M.D., Ph.D., in his research learned that there is both good stress (called eu-stress) and bad stress (called distress). They are differentiated mostly by the ability to alternate rest and action in order to function optimally and then repair any damage (eu-stress), rather than unremitting high levels of demand without respite (distress). He found that physical, mental, and emotional stress burns out the immune and digestive systems no matter the cause of the stress or the manifestation of the illness.
Eu-stress is sometimes called beneficial stress, and it really is beneficial in that we become stimulated by the challenges presented in “normal” life. Your body responds to challenges in its perfect way (i.e., the body always responds perfectly to the perceived challenge). However, there is a cumulative effect of stressors; and when these stressors are too great, too long lasting, or highly unusual, the biochemical responses that occur can wreak havoc on the individual.
Exhaustion comes on with unremitting and prolonged distress in which the involved organs and systems wear out. If there is no recovery period, then the body and the mind begin to bring other organs and systems into play in an attempt to handle the stressors. More adrenalin, cortisol, and other stress hormones are needed in your body’s efforts to keep up with the demand for action. Repair functions and nonessential functions are inhibited as more and more energy is directed to just keeping up. The immune system and digestion are affected. There are blood pressure changes (hypertension), a decrease in white blood cells, and shrinking in the organs designed to protect you from illness and toxicity (thymus, spleen, lymphatic system). Your heart and kidneys will be affected by the hypertension, and your circulatory system will become damaged over time. You cannot think or reason as well as you should. You can become depressed, anxious, or despondent.
There is evidence that practically every disease can be aggravated by stress or negative emotions. There is evidence for many diseases that they are caused directly by stress. Autoimmune diseases often correlate with unremitting emotional, physical, and/or psychological stress. Digestive issues such as ulcers, colitis, indigestion, dyspepsia, and diverticulitis are frequently related to stress. High blood pressure, fatigue, headaches, and spasms occur with unremitting stress. These are not things that anybody wants to have. And guess what! We are not locked into illness because of stress. We can do something about how we are affected by stress. Dr. Selye wrote that only human beings can transmute distress into eu-stress by using the rational mind.
Take a moment and notice where and how you experience stress. Do you carry your tension in your neck and shoulders, stomach, chest, head, or back? Do you experience fatigue or sleeplessness? Do you suffer from digestive problems? Do you become irritable and feel stuck and overwhelmed, or do you become a workaholic, constantly on the go and caught up in perpetual “busy-ness”? It is important to note here the concept of that which the mind ignores, the body stores. What do you think you are getting away with by not acknowledging and dealing with the stress that has now taken up residence somewhere in your body?
This chapter is about noticing and becoming mindful of how stress—good and/or bad—affects you. The reason to spend time paying attention is because most of us are so used to the normalcy of stress that some of the signs and symptoms of stress have been relegated to the category of “that’s just me.” Are you the person who always has headaches or intestinal problems? Are you the one who is always high-strung and tense? This chapter is about being open to learning and understanding how your body reacts to the stress in your life. You are going to allow yourself to question everything, and make no assumptions about anything that you experience in your body, mind, and soul. You are laying the groundwork for your growth and transformation, and it can only happen when you are willing to look at yourself with an open mind and heart. This is absolutely not about judging yourself. It’s about learning, growing, and evolving so that you really can live your life with greater authenticity and empowerment. You may not be able to avoid stress in your life, but you can certainly make better use of it to motivate, strengthen, and enhance your coping skills. It has been said that stress can either wear you down or polish you up, based on whether you see yourself as a passive victim of your life or an empowered co-creator of your destiny. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” You picked up this book because some part of you feels ready to wake up, so take action and truly live your life with energy, purpose, and self-respect.