Stress management – Part 1
The term “stress”, as it is currently used was coined by Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”. Selye had noted in numerous experiments that laboratory animals subjected to acute but different noxious physical and emotional stimuli (blaring light, deafening noise, extremes of heat or cold, perpetual frustration) all exhibited the same pathologic changes of stomach ulcerations, shrinkage of lymphoid tissue and enlargement of the adrenals. He later demonstrated that persistent stress could cause these animals to develop various diseases like those seen in humans, such as heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease and rheumatoid arthritis. At the time, it was believed that most diseases were caused by specific but different pathogens. Tuberculosis was due to the tubercle bacillus, anthrax by the anthrax bacillus, syphilis by a spirochete, etc. What Selye proposed was just the opposite, namely that many different insults could cause the same disease, not only in animals, but in humans as well.
Selye’s theories attracted considerable attention and stress soon became a popular buzzword that completely ignored Selye’s original definition. Some people used stress to refer to an overbearing or bad boss or some other unpleasant situation they were subjected to. For many, stress was their reaction to this in the form of chest pain, heartburn, headache or palpitations. Others used stress to refer to what they perceived as the result of these repeated responses, such as an ulcer or heart attack. Many scientists complained about this confusion and one physician concluded in a 1951 issue of the British Medical Journal that, “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”
Stress is the physiological and psychological response to real or imagined threats that we feel unable to deal with. In a medical or biological context stress is a physical, mental, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension. Stresses can be external (from the environment, psychological, or social situations) or internal (illness, or from a medical procedure). Stress can initiate the “fight or flight” response, a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic systems. Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand. Every type of demand or stressor—such as exercise, work, school, major life changes, or traumatic events—can be stressful.
Stress can affect your health. It is important to pay attention to how you deal with minor and major stress events so that you know when to seek help. At the most basic level, stress is our body’s response to pressures from a situation or life event. What contributes to stress can vary hugely from person to person and differs according to our social and economic circumstances, the environment we live in and our genetic makeup. Some common features of things that can make us feel stress include experiencing something new or unexpected, something that threatens your feeling of self, or feeling you have little control over a situation.
Negative Impacts of Stress on Health
The human body is designed to react to real or perceived stress in ways meant to protect against threats from predators and other aggressors. Stressors include but not limited to a heavy workload, divorce, marriage, illness, natural disasters, etc. The human body treats any perceived stressor as a threat.When the body encounters a perceived threat (example, a near-miss accident, shocking news, a demanding assignment), the hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of the brain, instigates the “fight-or-flight response” — a combination of nerve and hormonal signals. This system prompts the adrenal glands, located at the top of the kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) is a hormone released from the adrenal glands and its major action is to prepare the body for ‘fight or flight’ response during stress. We say adrenaline is pumping when the following actions are evident:
• Increase heart rate
• Increase in blood pressure
• Expansion of the lungs air passages
• Enlarged eye pupil
• Redistributing blood to the muscles
• Altering the body’s metabolism
Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances the brain’s use of glucose, and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear.
The body’s stress-response system is usually temporary. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities. But when stressors are always present, such as those we experience in a modern, fast-paced society, the body can constantly feel under attack, and the fight-or-flight reaction remains activated.
The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all the body’s processes and increase the risk of numerous mental and physical health problems, including:
• Digestive problems
• Heart disease
• Sleep problems
• Weight gain
• Memory and concentration impairment
• Post-traumatic stress disorder
Life is dynamic and constantly changing. This simple fact creates emotional, mental, and physical stress. It’s not possible to avoid stress entirely. Instead, you have to learn how to manage stress and navigate through the situations that trigger stress. Often it is the stressful situations in life that bring out our best.
There are two types of stressors: internal stressors and external stressors. External stressors relate to your environment. They can involve a wide variety of things from screaming alarm clocks to crowded elevators to high pressure situations such as a work deadline, caring for a sick loved one, and even positive events such as gaining recognition for achievement. Often, external stressors represent things that are beyond our control.
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Internal stressors are those stress triggers that are internal to each person. These can range from feeling irritable to feeling tired or unappreciated. Negative thoughts and automatic thinking are forms of internal stressors.
Emotions are universal. Everyone has them. Emotions are intrinsically good because they provide information; therefore, emotions are valid. For example, everyone feels irritable at times. Irritation is a sign of anger, which tells you that something is wrong or anxiety, which tells you that you don’t know an outcome. These emotions are called swing emotions because they can either improve or damage your performance. Irritation, when not addressed, can snowball and reinforce negative thoughts and feelings. Managing swing emotions involves slowing down your thoughts. Here are some steps:
• Listen to self-talk. Take note of “I” statements vs. “you” statements. “I” statements imply agency while “you” statements imply blame. Are your thoughts fast or slow? Fast thinking indicates arousal and the narrowing of focus while slow thinking expands your focus and relaxes you. Are you thinking in complete sentences or shorthand? Turn shorthand thoughts into complete sentences. Take note of distorted thinking styles. These are 1) magnification, thinking that something is bigger than it is, 2) destructive labeling, assessing someone or something negatively, and 3) imperative thinking, belief that something or someone should do or be a certain way.
• Use your thoughts as instructional self-statements. When you notice negative thoughts, try countering them with different statements about your situation. If your thinking involves magnification, then put things in a different perspective. If your thinking involves destructive labeling, be more specific. If your thinking involves imperatives, counter with more flexibility and consider other options.
• Take a time out. Anger, anxiety, and frustration all narrow our focus. A break away from a situation can help you approach again with a fresh perspective. When taking a time out, it’s often good to have a plan on how to make use of your time out. For example, if taking a time out from a situation where you felt angry, try using up that arousal energy by going for a run or some other type of exercise.
*To be continued:
Dr. Akindotun Merino is a professor of psychology at the Argosy University, California, United States.
Twitter: @drakindotun; Instagram: Drakinmerino
Phone: 909.681.0530; Nigeria: 090 3543 9766
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