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Stress: What Is It, Really… and What Can I Do About It?

By Peggy Heerkens

Fight or Flight.

Have you heard that term? It’s real, and you and I have that response, whenever we face a real or perceived threat, danger, attack or other harmful event. Take a moment to think what happens when: a car comes close to hitting you as you cross the street; or, you made a mistake at work and your manager wants to see you; or, you’re two minutes away from singing that solo. What happens within you? Possibly:

  • Your heart rate speeds up

  • Your mouth goes dry

  • Your stomach hurts

  • You get a headache

  • You start to sweat

  • Your muscles tense

  • Your breathing gets faster

All those and more, are safe and automatic responses that happen naturally that prepare us to fight that battle...or run away. Fight or Flight. It goes back to the beginning of man.

For example, a caveman sits by a fire and in the corner of his eye, sees a hungry lion creeping its way toward him. His body goes into Fight or Flight mode, which helps him either fight that lion to save his own life, or to run as fast as he can. Using the bullets above, let’s see why these things happen:

  • Your heart rate speeds up…which forces more blood from the heart to parts of the body that need it, such as the arms and legs and brain, to “fight” the threat or to run

  • Your mouth goes dry…and your digestion slows down. Our digestion process requires saliva. When you’re sensing trouble, your body needs energy to go to your extremities and your brain, not to your stomach; so your mouth goes dry as part of slowing down the digestion process.

  • Your stomach hurts…there’s a decrease in hydrochloric acid produced in your stomach (HCL helps in digestion)

  • You start to sweat…perspiring cools the body and allows it to burn more energy

  • Your muscles tense…for strength and preparation to fight or run from the ‘danger’

  • Your breathing gets faster…forcing more oxygen to parts of the body that need it

This all happens by itself (sympathetic nervous system), and after the threat is removed, your body dips below its normal state (para-sympathetic nervous system); and then returns to its normal state. It is safe, it is even necessary for survival.

Today we aren’t fighting lions or bears, but we are dealing with a lot of stress in today’s world: job insecurity, family issues, illness, divorce, financial issues, instability in one way or another.

Our body is equipped to handle stress in small doses. So when does this become a problem for you? Chronic stress is when a difficult life event goes on for long periods of time, and it controls you and your thought process. It’s when you are handling too many issues at the same time. Your body doesn’t get a chance to rest and recover; it is in a continual state of fight or flight. After a while, it takes its toll on you and your body begins to break down, physiologically, emotionally, and/or mentally.

Before we go on, I’d like to talk about stress and ‘stressors’. A stressor is any stimulus that triggers the fight or flight response. They are the demands/challenges on our lives. Dr. Hans Selye, a recognized expert in the field, tested the reaction of rats by exposing them to various conditions (heat, cold, too little food, too much food, over-crowding, isolation) and found that no matter what the stressor was, the rats reacted physiologically the same way. He concluded that regardless of the source of the stress, the body reacts in the same manner. It is the same with humans.

Also, it is not the situation itself that causes stress; it is how that situation is received by the person. The same situation (lay-off; financial loss; death of a loved one) could happen to 15 different people, and we could have 15 different reactions. My stressors are not your stressors, and yours are not mine. You may handle very easily something that I do not handle well. For example, Carolyn may lose her temper when her child breaks the dish she told him not to touch, but Joe takes it in stride and helps his daughter clean up the mess, teaching her a lesson on ‘learning and obeying’. Same situation, different reactions.

Even positive life events can cause stress, such as getting married; going on vacation; getting a job promotion. Those events are called eustress (eu- (Greek) means good + stress). They can cause these stress symptoms as well.

The Good News

Not all stressors lead to illness. Those who learn healthy ways of managing stress are more likely to remain healthy than those who do not know or do not try to learn better ways of handling the stressors. People who:

  • share their concerns with others

  • have unconditional, as well as conditional support systems in their life

  • exercise and eat well and get the sleep they require

  • practice ways to relax and play!; who appreciate life and have a healthy outlook

  • have learned how to change their negative mental and emotional response to the stressor (and it can be learned!)

  • have a healthy sense of self-esteem and purpose in life

  • have a faith in something bigger than him- or herself

Those people are in a good place no matter what comes their way. Is that you? No? Do you want to learn more? Stay tuned for further installments, as we will unpack this important topic with ways to cope with and manage the stress now and in the future.

Be well.

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