Understanding Stress

Stress Response Flow Chart

Understanding Stress

Stress is a commonly experienced problem by most people due to difficulties at work, unemployment, family concerns, relationshiip problems and other external circumstances that create an embalance in emotions and behavior. It is not stress or the anxiety that is the problem, it is how these feelings are manage and coped with and the decisions made to manage them. When someone is experiencing a high degree of stress, the problem becomes their ability and skill to find healthy and productive techniques to counter these emotions. Stress is a normal emotion in life. However, when stress is triggered too much, it can help contribute to poor health.

Everyone knows stress is not pleasant, whether it is something such as enviornmental circumstances such as a car breaking down, traffic jams, too much work to finish in time or other more psychological reasons such as obsessive worry about finding a job or other catistrophic thinking that leads someone to think..."oh my, I will never..." or "I have to do this or else..." or "I must, should do this and if not..." something terrible and awful will happen.

Stress of this kind triggers stress hormones that produce many psychological changes. Stress can cause the heart to pound faster and breathing to speed up. Muscles can tighten and sweating can occur.
This type of reaction to stress is known as the "fight or flight" response. This response helps humans to survive, helping someone to react when necessary to life threatening situations. The hormonal changes that occur and the psychological responses helps a person to fight off the threat or flee to safety. A wonderful metephor and illustration of the fight or flight response is the following; "If you were in a room with a fire breathing dragon, would you take out your sword and attempt to slay it, or would you run out of the room."
The stress response begins in the brain. When someone is confronted with a very dangerous situation, such as a car pulling out in front of you, the senses send the information to the amygdala, the area of the brain that helps control emotional processing, and the driver will immediately slam on the brakes. The amygdala will then receive and interpret the information and when it preceives danger it immediately sends a warning signal to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus is like the the headquarters of the brain. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through what is called the autonomic nervous system. This system controls involuntary body functions, such as blood pressure, breathing, heart rate, blood vessels. The autonomic nervous system has two parts, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The symptathetic nervous system sends a signal to the fight or flight response, and provides energy so it can respond to danger. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a shut off valve, that allows the body to calm itself down after the danger has disappeared. After the amygdala sends a signal of distress, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals to the autonomic system and then to the adrenal glands. These glands will then pump the hormone epinephrine, which is the same as adrenaline into the bloodstream. As a result, the body responds with a higher heart beat, breathing is more rapid and blood pressure goes up. When this happens, oxygen is sent to the brain that helps increase alertness, and other senses become sharper. What follows is epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar and other nutrients into the bloodstream that supplies energy to all parts of the body. As the first release of  epinephrine decreases, the hypothalamus activates a second component of stress responses known as the HPA axis. This network of responses consist of the hyothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal glands. The HPA axis depends on a series of hormonal signals, to keep the sympathetic nervous system going. When the brain continues to perceive there is danger, the hypothalamus releases coricotropin-releasing hormone or CRH that travels to the pituitary gland, triggering a release  of adrenocorticotropic  hormone or ACTH. This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, triggering a release cortisol. By doing so, the body stays  on high alert and when the threat goes away, cortisol levels decrease. The parasympathetic nervous system calms the stess response.

When someone does not have the skills or knowledge to manage stress or know how to "put the breaks on, the "HPA axis remains activated, even with consistant low levels of stress. After an extended period of time, this has a direct effect on the body's health, thereby increasing the risk of illness, immune deficiencies and other health problems. Chronic epinephrine surges can help damage arteries, blood vessels, increased blood pressure and raise the risk of heart attack and stroke. High cortisol levels help to restore the body's energy during stress. However, cortisol can increase appetite to restore that energy which can increase the storage of fat.
There are many techniques that people can incorporate in their lives to manage and cope with stress. The following are just a few to consider.

1. Physical exercise, or activities, such as walking,  swimming, hiking biking or anything that gets the body moving.
2. Engage in activities that stimulate the brain that create happiness and contentment. This could include listening to music, reading, cooking or any hobby that makes one feel fulfilled.
3. Stay connected to activities that instill purpose and meaning in life.
4 Maintain and/or create support systems. This includes friends, acquaintances, co-workers, family, spouses. The more emotional support one has, the more this can help to sustain someone in a time of stress.
5. Reach out for professional help if needed BEFORE stress becomes too overwhelming. Don't wait for it to become a crisis.
6. Relaxation, deep breathing exercises, while sitting in a comfortable chair. While keeping eyes closed, breath in slowly with lips open as if sipping through a straw. Then exhale slowly. Repeat a few times.

Source: "Harvard Mental Health Letter" Voulume 27. Number 9. March 2011.

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