Stress has both positive and negative impact on our lives. The hormones released with stress are used to preserve life and limb from harm. However, we often live in a state of perpetual stress that is not life-preserving but life-draining. The body's natural defenses against stress may be taxed for those who have experienced trauma (i.e., physical or sexual abuse), those who have occupations demanding an instant or constant heightened state of alertness (i.e., EMT's, firemen, air traffic controllers), and others whose stress level does not return to normal after crises. Some conditioned to elevated stress may even seek to reproduce that intensity (i.e., combat soldiers who return only to engage in high-risk behavior). An understanding of the basics of stress management may help.
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF STRESS
Two Stages of Physiological Response to Stress
Rapid Response Stage (sympathetic nervous system):
- Hypothalamus signals adrenal medulla above the kidney to produce
• adrenaline and
to prepare the body for fight/flight response.
2. This results in
• ↑ energy
• ↑ blood pressure
• ↑ heart rate
• ↑ respiration
• ↑ endorphins
• ↑ platelets.
Delayed Reaction Stage (parasympathetic nervous system):
- Hypothalamus produces CRH (corticotropin-releasing hormone) which stimulates the
- Pituitary Gland to produce ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone which stimulates the
- Adrenal Cortex to produce cortisol which
• enhances adrenaline and noradrenaline and
• prepares body to return to normal by
- ↑ inflammatory reactions to stress
- ↑ immune reactions to stress
- transforming nutrients into fats and glycogen to
"The two distinct stages of the stress response explain why stress can have such contrary effects on memory. Initially stress enhances perception and learning, but later, stress obstructs the processing of new information." (25)
"Persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising the risk of heart attack and strokes."(2) Physiological changes to replenish energy contribute to storage of unused nutrients as fat. Cortisol increases appetite and motivation to eat. If stress persists, cortisol may stay elevated, maintaining increased appetite which in turn leads to weight gain.(3)
Robert Epstein(4) identifies four broad 'competencies' or skill sets that help people manage stress:
1) Source Management - reducing or eliminating sources of stress
2) Relaxation – practicing breathing exercises and meditation
3) Thought Management – correcting irrational thinking and harmful
interpretation of events
4) Prevention – planning and conducting your life to avoid stressors
Epstein reports that "prevention is by far the most helpful competency when it comes to managing stress." (34) Second is source management (delegating tasks, organizing your space, and scheduling your time well).
Based on the Harvard Medical School Your Portable Guide to Stress Relief www.health.harvard.edu are ten recommendations to reduce stress:
1) Apply time-management principles; prioritize and map your day.
2) Challenge cognitive distortions; stop, breathe, reflect, choose.
3) To reduce insecurity, consult, study, and increase your skills.
4) Eliminate at least one time-consuming household task.
5) Commit to pare down your schedule; attend to one item at a time.
6) To reduce tension, exercise and do relaxation techniques.
7) Shift from pessimism to optimism;
add restorative social, creative, productive, and leisure pursuits.
8) Use "I…" rather than "You…" statements; improve assertiveness.
9) Self-nurture/self-soothe; care for yourself; explore alternatives.
10) Connect with others; volunteer; take a class; seek help.
A client once taught me an invaluable technique for reducing stress. Taking a slow deep breath, she said, "Breathe in God." Letting that breath out slowly, she said "Breathe out fear." It works for breathing out panic, anger, rejection, pain, and other constrictors that keep us from feeling God's peace that surpasses understanding (Phil. 4:6-9). God has not given us a spirit of fear (the underlying emotion behind stress), but of power and love and a sound mind. (II Timothy 2:7) For Christians it is meditation on the Word of God and His promises that ultimately brings relief from stress. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear…. I John 4:18
- Elizabeth S. York, M.Ed., LPC, LMFT