STRESS AND THE STRESS RESPONSE
All change brings an amount of stress. The larger the change, the larger the stress. We need to allow adequate rest and relaxation (recovery time) to get over stressful situations. If we donít do this, then we may suffer exhaustion, fatigue, breakdown, and loss of health. The Holmes and Rahe stress scale helps us to identify life events and the probable stress factor we may experience. It's not a finite list and I am sure that you can add your own ideas to it.
After all high-stress situations/events, we need to allow ourselves suitable "recovery time" with some conscious relaxation, so that the body and mind can restore its balance.
If we can identify events that cause stress, then we can be prepared to find and implement our own relaxation program to counteract the accumulation of stress in the body and mind. The accumulation of stress seriously damages our holistic health and leads to depression and holistic disease.
|Life Event.||Stress Factor (1 -100)|
|Death of a spouse||100|
|Death of a close family member||63|
|Personal injury or illness||53|
|Being fired from a job||47|
|Change in financial state||38|
|Arguments with spouse||35|
|Change in responsibilities at work||29|
|Children leave home||29|
|Trouble with in-laws||29|
|Beginning or ending school||26|
|Change in living conditions||25|
|Trouble with your boss||23|
|Change in work hours or conditions||20|
|Change in eating habits||15|
What do we mean when we say we are "stressed out"? We may just be having a bad day, or feeling pressured by too many things to do and too little time to do them. Or we may have had a fight with a friend or family member. Or our job may be getting to us - feeling that it is just a rat race without a purpose, or feeling too much pressure and a lack of support and camaraderie. In any case, we are "bummed out" and "frazzled" and tend to think about how we feel at the moment and how to make it better right away. Rarely do we give much thought to the longer time frame and how our body is handling or not handling the pressure. Yet, it is the longer time frame of months and even years that is important for understanding the bad side of stress.
Stress activates adaptive responses. The body marshals its forces to confront a threat and, generally, does a good job of protecting us in the short run. So why can stress also be so bad for our bodies and brains?
Stress can prematurely age us and leave us chronically fatigued or depressed. When exposure to stress -- whether from a traumatic event to just the daily hassle of rush hour traffic or too much email -- disrupts the body's internal balance ("homeostasis"), it can go one of three general ways: the body can regain its normal equilibrium once the stress has passed or it can become stuck in an over- or under-aroused state. How a person copes with stress -- by reaching for a beer or cigarette as opposed to heading to the gym -- also plays a big role in the impact stress will have on our bodies.
When the body is challenged by almost anything that happens to us, from getting out of bed in the morning or running up a flight of stairs or having to stand up and give a talk, the brain activates the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the involuntary system of nerves which controls and stimulates the output of two hormones, cortisol from the adrenal cortex and adrenalin from the adrenal medulla. These two hormones and the activity of the ANS help us cope: the ANS and the adrenalin keep us alert by increasing our heart rate and blood pressure and quickly mobilizing energy reserves. In contrast, cortisol works more slowly, helps replenish energy supplies and, at the same time, helps us to remember important things. For example, cortisol readies our immune system to handle any threat -- bacterial/viral or injury.
Another aspect of cortisol action is called "containment." Many physiological systems are pitted against one another so that neither system can get out of control. The initial, first line response to many noxious or pathogenic agents is normally "contained" by circulating levels of cortisol. This is why we take corticoids for an inflammation or skin irritation. Cortisol also contains acquired immune responses, and this is particularly useful when those responses are harmful, such as in an allergy or an autoimmune disorder.
All of these adaptive responses are described by the term "allostasis" which means "maintaining stability, or homeostasis, through change."1 The body actively copes with a challenge by expending energy and attempting to put things right. Most of the time it succeeds but the real problems arise when the systems involved in allostasis don't shut off when not needed or don't become active when they are needed.
Chronic Stress Response - Too Much of a Good Thing
The way our bodies work presents us with a paradox: what can protect can also damage. This is called "allostatic load." It's the price the body has to pay for either doing its job less efficiently or simply being overwhelmed by too many challenges.
For our metabolism, the overactivity of the ANS and increased cortisol secretion produce elevated levels of sugar in the blood ("hyperglycemia"). As little as a week of inadequate sleep, say 75% of normal, can raise evening levels of blood sugar. If prolonged, what can result is a rise of insulin, the hormone manufactured by the pancreas to control sugar metabolism. If this situation goes on for a long time, continued hyperactivity of the ANS and elevated cortisol will lead the body down the path to type 2 diabetes. Elevated levels of cortisol, as in depressive illness, are also linked to gradual demineralization of bone.
For the cardiovascular system, the elevation of ANS activity, combined with hyperglycemia and too much insulin ("hyperinsulinemia") promote both hypertension and harmful metabolic conditions, as blood cholesterol rises and HDL, the so-called good cholesterol drops. This one-two punch accelerates hardening of the arteries ("arteriosclerosis"). Blood pressure surges seem particularly important. Among monkeys living in social hierarchies, the dominant males show accelerated atherosclerosis when the hierarchy is unstable and they have to continuously fight for their position. Treating these animals with beta blockers, pharmaceuticals used to control blood pressure, prevented the increased atherosclerosis.
While acute stress actually improves our brain's attention and increases our capacity to store important and life-protecting information, for example, a source of danger, chronic stress dampens our ability to keep track of information and places. Chronic stress does this by impairing excitability of nerve cells and by promoting atrophy of nerve cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is important for spatial and verbal memory.
For the immune system, which is controlled by the nervous system and by circulating hormones, chronic stress suppresses the ability of the immune system to do its job. This, once again, is in contrast to acute stress. Acute stress actually helps the immune system handle a pathogen by causing immune cells to move out of the bloodstream and into tissues where they are needed. Chronic stress, however, impairs not only the ability of the immune system to relocate immune cells but also the ability of those cells to do their job of recognizing and responding to the pathogenic agent.
Too Little of a Good Thing
But what happens when the body cannot mount an adequate response to an acute stress? Clearly, many of the good things that stress hormones do will not occur, like enhancing memory, replenishing energy reserves or moving immune cells to where they are needed. One other consequence, seen most clearly in the immune system, is that systems that are normally "contained" by cortisol become hyperactive. In the immune system, we find inflammatory agents (cytokines) and self-generated responses ("autoimmune") are no longer contained by circulating cortisol. As a result, disorders like arthritis and autoimmune diseases, for example, lupus, become worse. One treatment for such disorders, as we will discuss later on, is to treat the patient with cortisone or another glucocorticoid steroid.
How Our Behavior Can Help or Hurt Us
Besides regulating the endocrine system and the ANS and exerting a powerful influence on the immune system, the brain is the master organ for our behavior. And our behavior can help us or hurt us in various ways. The most obvious way is to get us out of danger by flight or conciliation or to increase danger by confrontation or by risk-taking behaviors like driving recklessly. Another role of behavior is via health-damaging activities, e.g., smoking, drinking or eating too much of the wrong things, or health promoting behaviors such as exercise and eating a healthful diet. In other words, when we are under stress, it's important whether we reach for the bag of potato chips or go for a swim or a jog. Eating a rich diet and drinking alcohol feed into the allostatic load -- they increase the levels of these stress mediators and, thus, make hypertension and insulin resistance, among other consequences, more likely.
Projection: De-stressing on other people
A social problem to be aware of is projection. In terms of stress, we sometimes de-stress on others. We are unnecessarily sharp, cutting, angry, frustrated with the person. We scapegoat them by expressing our stress at them. We use the other as a target. This is bad behavior and should be stopped as soon as we are aware of it.
When we de-stress on another (who is not the legitimate cause) then we cause distress in the other. We hurt and upset them by scapegoating them. This is bad behavior.