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What is Stress?

Stress can be defined as any type of change that causes physical, emotional or psychological tension.

Stress is an unavoidable, normal part of life, like the air we breathe. It can either help us learn and grow or cause us problems. We experience stress in varying forms and degrees, occasionally, or perhaps daily. When we face obstacles or challenges, when we feel pressured, overwhelmed or powerless, unsure of how to meet demands, we experience stress. We may recognize this when tension manifests in our bodies: our hearts beat faster, our breath becomes shallow and rapid, and we may perspire. Some of us may be so focused on performance that we do not notice the symptoms until we collapse in exhaustion, or become ill.

Some stress in moderate doses can actually be beneficial to us. Eustress is the type of stress that helps us feel alive, excited and energized. Eustress enables us to react quickly, work hard, and have fun. Most of us experience this type of stress as enjoyable, even exciting. We may feel eustress when we are creative, when we compete in a sport, ride a roller coaster, or fall in love. Eustress provides the fuel we need to remain focused and alert. It helps motivate us to do our best, enabling us to successfully meet important challenges and responsibilities. Eustress fuels us when we are giving a presentation and drives us to study hard for exams. It motivates us to win a race or finish an important job on time.

Although just enough stress can be a good thing, stress overload is a different story - too much stress is not good for anyone. When life's demands exceed our abilities to cope, we feel over-stressed. We are then experiencing Acute Stress. When stress seems never-ending and inescapable, we are experiencing Chronic Stress. There is increasing scientific evidence that acute and chronic stress weaken our immune system, making it harder for us to remain healthy and fight off disease. We become moody, tense, anxious and depressed. Our ability to perform diminishes, our strength decreases and our relationships suffer. If we don't take positive action, acute and chronic stress is likely to create or worsen health problems. 

There are many stress reduction approaches. We would like to offer you the opportunity to practice relaxation and stress reduction if you choose to do so now. The paragraphs in italics at the beginning of the first section and one at the end of the last section, reminds and guides the reader in one approach. You may begin shifting your own nervous system into the relaxation response by regularly practicing this or another approach of your choice.   

As you read through the following sections, we invite you to stop periodically and notice how your body is responding. Observe your breathing, heart rate, and any tension you feel in your body, as well as your thoughts and feelings. Take a few minutes to focus on your breathing. Has it speeded up or slowed down? Is it shallow or not? Is there increased tension or heat in your body? If you notice these stress reactions, stop reading and close your eyes. Practice breathing slowly and deeply from your belly for a few moments before continuing to read. Shift your focus entirely on your belly, relaxing as you breath deeply and gently. Deep breathing shifts your nervous system from a sympathetic tensing reaction to parasympathetic relaxation response. In this way you are in more balance and are calming your mind and body. Repeat this way of breathing off and on as you read. 

If you prefer, look around the room and find an object, animal, or plant you enjoy observing and focus there. Notice any shift in your breathing, heart rate, and areas where tension was held earlier. You may want to listen to soft relaxing music. Perhaps, at intervals, you can imagine yourself in a peaceful place. Use this as an opportunity to practice awareness and self-regulation, which strengthen healthy neural pathways in your brain and change your body’s habitual stress reaction to a calmer state.

How Does Stress Affect Your Body and Your Health?
Like all animals, when we perceive threat or danger our body responds by producing powerful neurochemical hormones (adrenalin, cortisol) that prepare us for action. These chemicals speed up our heart and our breathing, raise our blood pressure and metabolism, and slow down digestion. Blood vessels open wider to let more blood flow to large muscle groups, putting our muscles on alert. Pupils dilate to improve our vision. The liver releases some of its stored glucose to increase our body’s energy. We sweat to cool our body down. All of these physical changes prepare us to react quickly and effectively to handle the pressure of the moment and give us a burst of energy and strength.

This process is called the “fight-or-flight”, or “stress response”. We are prepared to fight and defend ourselves or run away from the danger; necessary options for us to respond effectively during emergency situations. Working properly, the body’s stress response enhances our ability to perform well under pressure and helps us rise to the challenge at hand. When the crisis is over, our nervous system is wired to return to balance, shifting gradually into the relaxation response. However, human beings, unlike animals in the wild, are capable of internalizing stress. This happens when our stress response freezes and fails to turn off, preventing our body from properly resetting itself. Current human brain research has demonstrated that if not properly discharged through the “fight or flight” response, stressful or traumatic experiences can become trapped in the nervous system, in turn leading to a variety of symptoms that may worsen over time if left unhealed. .  

There are times that we experience ongoing or long-term pressure, e.g. when we are coping with loss, with an end of a relationship, a divorce, chronic illness, or a change in our life situation such as a move, a change in job or school. These long-term stressful situations can produce a lasting, low level of stress, referred to as Chronic Stress. Our body remains in an activated state. On constant alert, our nervous system pumps out additional stress hormones over an extended period of time. Consequently, we are unable to flow back into a relaxation response and our normal, balanced state. Instead, our body’s reserves are depleted, our immune system is impacted, and we are unable to self heal. When chronically stressed we may feel overwhelmed, unable to cope, exhausted, tense, anxious, worried, fearful or depressed.

Health Effects
Stress can take many different forms, and can contribute to a variety of symptoms and illnesses. Recent research suggests that 60 to 90 percent of illness is stress related. Stress affects our health by damaging our immune system, compromising our ability to fight off disease and infection. Stress impacts our cardiovascular system, throws our digestion off balance, and interferes with conception and impacts our emotional and psychological well being. The first symptoms of stress may be relatively mild, like chronic headaches and increased susceptibility to colds. Our symptoms, if ignored are liable to worsen, leaving us vulnerable to more serious health problems.  

Excess stress can manifest itself in a variety of physical, emotional, and behavioral symptoms that vary enormously among different individuals. What constitutes overwhelming stress for one person may not be felt as stress by another. Likewise, the signs and symptoms of unprocessed and unmanaged stress will be different for each person. For example, some people become angry and let their anger out on others. Some people internalize their stress and develop eating disorders or substance abuse problems. People who have a chronic illness may find that their symptoms flare up when they are experiencing an overload of stress.

Common Physical Symptoms of Stress Overload Include:

Sleep or eating problems         Hair loss
Shortness of breath Body tension
Muscle tension Nausea and vomiting
Chronic headaches Heart racing
Gastrointestinal disturbances Dizziness or flushing
Excessive fatigue, tiredness Tremulousness or restlessness
Chronic pain Hyperventilation or choking sensation
Chest pain or pressure Weight gain or loss


Medical Conditions and Illness Associated With or Exacerbated by Stress Include:

Migraines Diabetes                               Ulcers
Heartburn High blood pressure Back pain
Allergies and Asthma Skin problems Heart disease
Tooth and gum disease Pre-Menstrual Syndrome Obesity
Infertility Autoimmune diseases Irritable bowel syndrome

Emotional and Behavioral Symptoms Associated With Stress
Uncontrollable, unpredictable, and long-term stress has far-reaching consequences on our mental health as well as our physical health. The body’s response to long-term stress rewires the brain; creating and deepening stress induced neural pathways. We are left feeling more vulnerable to everyday pressures and less able to cope. Over time, without taking positive steps to create and deepen our relaxation neural pathways, the stress response can lead to, and increase, mental health problems.

Mental and Emotional Problems Associated With Stress Include:

  • Feeling emotionally unregulated or out of control
  • Agitation, nervousness, feeling pressured
  • Distraction, disorganization
  • Excessive worry or obsessive thoughts
  • Overly self-absorbed
  • Feeling disconnected from others
  • Anxiety or panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness
  • Changes in eating habits, including over and under-eating
  • Loss of enthusiasm or energy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in eating habits including over and under eating
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Thoughts of harming self or others
  • Bouts of anger

Unhealthy Behaviors Associated With Stress
People under stress have a greater tendency to engage in unhealthy behaviors, such as:

  • Excessive use or abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Smoking cigarettes
  • Poor nutritional habits
  • Rushing through daily activities such as eating, working, walking
  • Over dependence on outside stimulation to feel good (coffee, sweeteners, food, TV, internet; money; sex, work, shopping, gambling)

When we desperately try to relieve our stress and its symptoms, we may fall into a “vicious cycle” of reacting to events by trying to escape our feelings and symptoms with unhealthy behaviors. These behaviors actually increase the severity of our stress by increasing our reactivity and sensitivity to life’s events.

The good news is that new brain science teaches us that we can redesign our brain. Scientists now know that the human brain is not completely set at birth or early childhood. Instead the brain, like other muscles in our body, can change in response to new behaviors as well as to prescribed medications. You may have heard about the two key laws of brain plasticity: “Neurons that fire together, wire together,” and “neurons that fire apart wire apart.” In other words, by replacing an unhealthy pattern of behavior with a healthy and pleasurable one, our brains form a new circuit that can be gradually reinforced. Moreover, by not acting on an unhealthy impulse, we weaken the link between the compulsion and the idea that it will ease our anxiety.

Major Risk Factors For Stress
The presence of a stressor does not automatically result in disabling stress symptoms. The degree to which any stressful situation or event impacts your daily functioning depends partly upon the nature of the stressor itself and partly on your own personal and external resources. If you know which factors contribute to your stress level, you will be able to better focus your attention on the areas that need to change. 

The Intensity of Your Stress Depends On:

  • Nature of the stressor: if it involves central aspects of your life (family, job) and if it is a chronic issue
  • Crisis: sudden intense situations (attack, rape, robbery, disasters)
  • Multiple stressors: the more life changes and daily pressures increase, the more stress you experience
  • Perception: how you view the stress, your attitude in general effects how it impacts you.
  • Knowledge: how much understanding and knowledge you have regarding your situation affects how well you can cope.
  • Stress Tolerance: the more confidence you have in yourself and your ability to persevere, the better able you will be to cope.
  • Support Network: a strong network of supportive friends and family provides a buffer against life’s stressors. The more lonely or isolated you are, the higher your risk of reacting in unhealthy ways to stress. Any type of spiritual resource or community can enhance resilience in difficult times.

Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Human beings respond to trauma differently from animals in the wild due to human brain’s ability to internalize and repress our natural responses of “fight or flight.” Unaware that we are physically, mentally and emotionally stuck in a fight or flight mode, our trauma is literally trapped in our bodies. Equilibrium is not regained and our system does not return to a normal balance. We may remain unaware that we are hypervigilent or disconnected. Our lives gradually become more constricted. This persistent, debilitating reaction to trauma, that can range from subtle to severe, is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many people, in the days and weeks following exposure to a traumatic event, have some symptoms of PTSD that gradually disappear. Many others experience long lasting symptoms without relief.

Events that can trigger traumatic reactions or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Include:

  • Accidents
  • Military combat or living in war zones
  • Violent personal assaults such as rape or mugging
  • Intense, repetitive family conflicts, or violence (verbal and physical)
  • Chronic emotional or physical abuse
  • Natural or human caused disasters
  • Surgery and anesthesia
  • Chronic illness
  • Sexual abuse
  • Loss and death of significant others
  • Emotional and physical neglect in childhood

Common Symptoms of PTSD Include:

  • Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or nightmares about the traumatic event
  • Avoidance of places and things associated with the trauma
  • Mental, physical and emotional hypervigilance for signs of danger
  • Chronic irritability, tension, anxiety
  • Depression
  • Emotional numbness
  • Sleep/Eating disturbances
  • Outbursts of Anger
  • Survivor’s Guilt

In recent years, a variety of therapeutic treatment modalities have been specifically developed to treat trauma and PTSD. These treatments include: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, Somatic Experiencing, Progressive Exposure, medication, and other supportive approaches such as body work, yoga, relaxation techniques, energy healing, and visualization can help ameliorate the symptoms of PTSD.  

(You may want to take time again to stop reading and close your eyes. Continue to build your practice of noticing and sensing how your body is responding to this information. If you notice some tension in your body begin to take some slow deep breaths, softening your belly, slowing and deepening your breathing. You may begin to notice a shift toward less tension and more relaxation spreading through parts of your body. You are practicing developing your neural pathways for relaxation. If you choose to continue reading, your comprehension will be enhanced as your system has shifted from constriction to more flow.)

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