To be or not to be - STRESS is the question
Stress is a normal physical response to things that make you feel threatened or upset in some way. When your body feels a sense of anxiety or danger — whether it’s real or imagined — the body's defences start up a rapid, automatic reaction known as the “fight-or-flight-or-freeze” reaction, or the stress response, some might call it ‘fight, flight or faint’.
When your body perceives a threat, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones from the adrenal cortex. These hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, rouse the body for emergency action – it is prepared for anything – fighting a tiger, tracking prey, dodging traffic, doing an exam.
Your heart pounds faster, muscles tighten, blood pressure rises, breath quickens, and your senses become sharper. Your thyroid gland automatically stimulates increased metabolism and larger muscles in the body receive better blood supply (to run away from, or stand and fight, the tiger).
Furthermore, the parts of the body that don’t need to be used urgently have a decrease in activity – slower digestion and renal function (or you vomit / need to urinate / empty bowels). This reduces the work load your body has to deal with – no digesting to do and lighter without the urine / full bowel.
Your mouth will also become dry and your blood vessels will constrict to send blood where it thinks it is needed (to those larger muscles). Your immune response is reduced - after all you don’t need to worry about avoiding a small virus when fighting a tiger - while your memory is impeded a little, but immediate awareness is heightened – obviously you don’t need to remember algebra or even your name when faced with a tiger but you do need to very aware of your immediate options and an escape route.
These physical changes increase your strength and stamina, speed up your reaction time, and enhance your focus — preparing you to either fight or flee from the danger at hand. This of course is really helpful and can save your life – jumping out of the way of traffic is more likely than a tiger attacking but the idea is the same.
So if it is normal what on earth is the problem with it?
Well, our body finds it hard to identify the actual threat – it sees what it thinks is a threat - perceived anxiety or danger - and tries really hard to provide protection, like a kind of hormone bubble wrap. The more it perceives danger, the more hormone it produces.
If the threat is dealt with and then goes away, the levels of hormone go back to normal and the bubble wrap loosens. We walk away and we are usually fine, but if the body thinks we are often under threat then the levels may remain high – never allowing the protective bubble wrap to unravel and we remain limited by an over protective body.
So to really understand why this happens just have a quick look at some of the things our body finds stressful -
Emotional /social stuff
Friendship break up
New school / university
Death of relative
Planning your future
Ignoring input / output ratio
Working long hours
Imbalance in diet
Too many hobbies or training days
Drinking too much alcohol
Now it would seem reasonable to think that actually loads of people are under this sort of stress. Sometimes though it is hard to remember our body sees it as stress. If we enjoy our job, get involved with a project then maybe miss lunch, work late then go out with friends, having only four hours sleep and getting up for work again - it may just feel like we are just working hard and playing hard. Our body sees it differently – the stress receptors perceive some type of stress. I.e. physical and social, tiredness, hunger, work v. friendship balance. Therefore the response is to start preparing for fight or flight again.
This subtle build up is the cause of the problem - ongoing underlying responses to any of the above mentioned things leaves the body with a higher than required level of cortisol and this affects the body in many different ways, often setting up a negative cycle:
The more adrenaline and cortisol, the more anxious you feel. The more you feel anxious, the more the body perceives a threat and produces more stress hormones. The build up effect can be surprisingly wide reaching, as outlined below.
Some of symptoms caused when the levels of cortisol are maintained at a defensive level:
- Not sleeping very well – if the cortisol levels don’t have a chance to drop when the body is resting / sleeping they will remain a little too high and cause restlessness resulting in tiredness in the mornings. Sometimes it feels like you haven’t slept even though you have, leaving you waking up lacking energy and enthusiasm.
- Memory and decision making problems - feeling a bit sluggish and not as sharp, less in control..
- The digestive system starts playing up – nausea, indigestion, irritable bowel - getting in the way of your life.
- Cortisol interferes with the immune system which can lead to minor illnesses.
- Blood sugar raises, increasing the risk of diabetes. High glucose levels increase the insulin levels, which then drop blood sugar – and all of a sudden –there is a craving for sugary foods.
- Gaining weight around the abdomen has been linked to too much cortisol.
- Cortisol can also affect the sensitivity of nerve fibres and this can lead to an increase in headaches and backaches – the natural endorphins (natural pain killers) are reduced if the body feels stressed.
- When stress hormones are high, libido-inducing hormones decrease, leading to headaches and a reduced sex drive.
- Feelings of anxiety and panic increase due to the cortisol and epinephrine.
- The constant high levels of cortisol suppress serotonin and you start to feel down, irritable or angry for 'no' reason.
To be honest, all things considered - not sleeping well, feeling tired, feeling fat, having irritable bowel symptoms, memory issues that impact at work / school, being full of cold and maybe having spots too, craving sugary foods and feeling guilty for having no energy to go to the gym, no desire to have sex maybe leading to relationship issues... Who wouldn’t feel down and a bit irritable!?
So although the body is really good at protecting us, sometimes it goes over board and it just isn’t necessary. You have to help it rebalance, reassure it that you don’t need to be in constant fight or flight mode, that the risk of tiger attack is minimal and all is well in your life.
If you can lower the cortisol and adrenaline levels the symptoms will reduce as well. You have to find a way to get rid of the protective bubble wrap, fight your way out of the layers and start afresh each day without the excessive protection of hormones responses.
If the body thinks it is safe and relaxed then it doesn’t need to produce the stress hormones. Therefore the key is making your body think it is relaxed, addressing some of the symptoms that are listed above is really important.
- Using full body relaxations before sleeping will help you achieve fitful restful sleep.
- A good sleep routine is useful if you find it difficult to relax your mind.
- Clear your bed of work.
- Get clean comfy sheets.
- Old comforters are OK, such as a teddy bear, blankets or a favourite old book.
When it comes to resting and relaxing it is a case of regressing and finding what comforts you – weird but true. Watching old favourites on TV before bed instead of new exciting films, reading old familiar books, or having a warm bath. Once you feel ready to go to bed, use deep focused relaxation techniques such as slow relaxed breathing or hypnotherapy techniques to change the breathing rate, relax the mind and once this is achieved the body will feel tension free and ready for rest.
Reducing muscle tension
You can learn to do these while working – a sort of multitasking approach. It may be that you are pretending to be relaxed, but if you consciously relax muscle groups then physically you will be relaxed. Using guided hypno-breathing techniques at home in a quiet safe place will help you become practised at achieving a slow breathing pattern. Once your breathing is regular and efficient it will feel as if you are focused and aware, able to reduce tension held in the shoulders or neck. Calm slow breathing achieves calmness and a feeling of total control.
Time out for thinking about nothing
Clearing your mind, even for two minutes every hour will help. This improves the memory and helps make decisions easier and more efficient. Slow deep focused breathing techniques that are simple to learn are really useful. This can be more difficult to do at first and sometimes using therapy time to practice them can help ensure the exercises work for you and your lifestyle.
Taking care of the physical stuff
This includes balancing out your diet – a little of everything is healthy, drinking water and maintaining good hydration is necessary (reducing caffeine a bit will help too).
Taking some exercise each day
Even if it is just a little more than you do now it will be of benefit. Give yourself permission to take a few minutes to go out of the office or into the garden, stretch and roll your shoulders to reduce tension.
If there are other emotional issues
Life is unpredictable sometimes and being aware and relaxed doesn't stop events being stressful. Issues such as bereavement, divorce, exam worries, relationship issues and many other variables often trigger stress responses but learning to limit over response, enables you to deal with these events appropriately. If several things happen at once, or something seems a real challenge, then it is worthwhile considering seeing someone to discuss the events. Counsellors are professionally trained to help support you and will help you resolve some of the feelings around the emotional stressors which in turn will help reduce any excessive hormone reaction and resulting symptoms.
Deep focused relaxation sessions are available from a number of different therapists, but if you are unsure, then starting with the simple ideas above will help it seem easier to make further decisions about what type of support or help will work for you.
Often, once the protective layers are reduced, the resulting positive feelings cascade and work in a positive way. The better you feel, the less stress hormone you need, so the better you feel. Breaking the cycle is the key and learning to use techniques that, on their own, seem simple and small, but put together they are a force to be reckoned with.The protective bubble wrap is there for when you actually need it but the techniques keep it under control – this gives you a feeling of control in your life and your decisions, with the energy and ability to cope when times are difficult or outside events need addressing.
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