Headaches, rapid breathing, sweaty palms, cold feet, stomach butterflies or cramps, racing thoughts, emotional outbursts – these are some of the ways the body reacts to stress.
Your body responds to all the uncontrolled, conflicting, competing demands and pressures by automatically and unconsciously mobilizing its resources to deal with all of them at the same time.
As a consequence, your energy reserves are tapped, the electrical activity of your skin, your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure increase.
- Muscles tense, blood vessels constrict, blood flow shifts from skin and gut to muscle and brain.
- Your digestive system slows down or worse, empties the bowels suddenly.
- Your temperature rises, your metabolism speeds up, your immune system prepares for battle, your blood platelets become sticky so your blood will coagulate faster, and your kidneys conserve sodium.
- Your liver releases blood sugars (glycogen) for fast energy.
- Thinking and learning change under stress. The mind scans for danger, even magnifying threats that may not be serious. Decision making can become rapid and impulsive or hesitant and frozen.
- Emotions become magnified – irritability turns to anger, concern turns to anxiety, fatigue turns to depressed mood.
You can only push yourself so hard for so long. When you exceed your physical limits for mobilization, something in your mind and/or body breaks down. You’re going to develop stress-related symptoms. Sometimes they’re physical, sometimes they’re mental.
Almost everybody has experience with muscular aches and pains. A slip on the ice pulls a muscle in your back. You exercise too strenuously after a sedentary week and are bothered by stiffness the next two days.
The repetitive motions from long periods of typing or painting the ceiling leave you with a sore shoulder. Overexertion can cause muscle pain. So can stress. Increased muscle tension is an important part of the “fight or flight” stress reaction to demand and pressure.
Noradrenaline from the sympathetic nervous system alerts the muscles to tense up in preparation for action. Tense muscles get set to act quickly in response to threat or danger. You move faster and have greater strength during an emergency because of this extra boost.
If no action occurs, muscle tension may remain. You adopt an “on guard” posture that lasts as long as you feel threatened: shoulders up, arms slightly forward. Waiting for the “pain in the neck” supervisor’s evaluation may bring on a knot in your upper back. The frown from worrying about your taxes may create a tension headache.
Stress also contributes to inattention to your body’s signals, increasing the likelihood that you will sit, stand, or move in ways that strain your muscles. Most people under stress are less likely to continue their exercise program, leaving the muscles vulnerable to strain when called upon for strenuous effort.
The skeletal muscular system is comprised of more than four hundred separate muscles; it accounts for more than 40 percent of body weight. Any one of these muscles can become overly fatigued, injured, or develop spasms. Muscle fibers are designed to tense and then relax. A muscle can go through this tense/relax cycle indefinitely.
As you walk, one set of muscles tenses while the opposing set of muscles relaxes. However, a muscle under sustained tension without an alternating relaxation phase eventually develops spasm and pain. Sustained tension from emotional stress, poor posture, or certain repetitive movements do not allow this relaxed phase to occur.
Unrelieved muscle tension leads to tension headaches, back pain, and TMJ, temporo-mandibular joint (jaw pain). Chronic muscle tension pulls on the muscle’s tendon, and can lead to pain where the tendon is attached to the bone.
Chronic tension on a joint or tendon can pull the body out of balance, creating new pains. This may also cause an inflammation of the tendons, resulting in the painful condition called tendinitis.
Chronic muscle tension can result in a deterioration in muscle health, strength, and conditioning. When weakened muscles are pushed beyond their physical limits, they spasm, which we experience as cramps in large muscles.
Conditioning and relaxation can reduce muscular symptoms of stress. Strong, healthy, well-conditioned muscles tolerate much more tension than weak, poorly-conditioned ones. Muscles need nourishment, exercise, and rest if they are to work without complaint.
If you suffer muscular symptoms only occasionally, an anti-inflammatory pain killer such as aspirin may be your best solution. If they occur regularly, however, reduce your level of muscle tension with relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or progressive muscle relaxation.
Remember that stress is additive.
There may be factors other than stress which contribute to chronic muscle tension. Incorrect posture and repetitive motions alone or in combination with emotional tensions can push you over the pain threshold.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is part of what’s called the autonomic nervous system. The PNS generally decreases physiological arousal. The other piece of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which we discuss in another section, increases physiological arousal. Between them, they handle the general housekeeping of the body and do so fairly automatically. Hence, the term “autonomic.”
The PNS takes care of the “vegetative” or domestic chores of the body. It handles details such as slowing heart rate, digestion, excretion of urine and feces, and sexual functions. PNS symptoms such as indigestion, heartburn, “acid stomach,” gas, flatulence, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, difficulties with urination, and sexual dysfunctions develop as a consequence of the physiological arousal associated with acute stress.
PNS symptoms of stress involve irritations of stomach, gut and bowel tissue, and disruption of smooth muscle functions. Symptoms can persist long after the stress that caused them has vanished. Even when the irritation or dysfunction is minimal, the tissue or muscle is often sensitized to recurrences. It thus takes less and less stress to generate symptoms.
If these symptoms run in your family you may have a genetic predisposition to this type of disorder. A prior illness or irritation may also have weakened the tissue. Acute stress then exacerbates that weak link. With each recurrence, the possibility of permanent tissue damage increases and severe conditions such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, urinary retention, or cystitis may occur.
Your PNS symptoms of stress, therefore, may become increasingly severe or may change over time depending upon the amount of damage created by earlier acute stress episodes. For instance, what started as “acid stomach” may lead to heartburn which may lead to ulcers. It depends upon how frequently you experience stress and how great the cumulative damage to tissue and smooth muscle created by each acute episode.
Under normal conditions, the sympathetic nervous system works in concert with the parasympathetic nervous system to manage the internal affairs of your body. As part of its housekeeping chores, it regulates your blood pressure by controlling your heart rate and the contractions of your blood vessels. In stressful situations, it plays a major role in creating the physiological arousal involved in mobilizing your physical resources.
In normal times, the SNS exerts its effects on the body by secreting small amounts of a neurotransmitter substance called noradrenaline directly onto the organs it is stimulating. However, in times of stress, the SNS calls upon the adrenal gland to secrete additional noradrenaline into the blood stream along with a more powerful neurotransmitter substance, adrenaline. Unlike the small amounts of noradrenaline secreted by the SNS, adrenal secretions affect the whole body, not just a single organ. They’re bigger, more potent, more general, and longer lasting.
These neurotransmitters circulating in your bloodstream provide a double dose of noradrenaline, accompanied by the extra “kick” of adrenaline. The physiological arousal created by SNS stimulation directly to a particular organ is rather short lived. But the arousal created by adrenaline circulating through your entire bloodstream can persist for hours. When your adrenal gland gets involved in your physiological reactions, your stress reaction, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, ain’t over when the stress is over. Hormones also play a part in your chemical recipe for panic.
Hormones (particularly cortisol from the outer shell of the adrenal gland) increase organ sensitivity to adrenaline and noradrenaline. This, too, raises your level of physiological arousal. For instance, adreno-cortico-trophic hormone (ACTH) is released by your pituitary gland into your bloodstream, where it travels to your adrenal gland. Once there, it stimulates the cells forming the outer layers of the adrenal gland, the adrenal cortex, to release a number of astressae hormones, including cortisol, into your blood stream.
One of cortisol’s many functions is to increase the sensitivity of organs such as your heart and blood vessels to the stimulating effects of noradrenaline and adrenaline. Your cardiovascular system becomes sensitized. When you experience acute, episodic stress, your cortisol-sensitized heart and blood vessels require less and less noradrenaline and adrenaline to climb to higher and higher levels of activity and then stay there for longer and longer periods of time. This is one reason that people who suffer one panic attack are likely to have repeated panicky feelings in the following weeks.
If your levels of arousal climb into the danger zone only occasionally, you’re more likely to develop symptoms involving your muscular system and your PNS. If it reaches the danger zone in the repeated bursts of arousal found in acute, episodic stress, however, you may also develop symptoms involving your SNS, such as panic attacks or cardiovascular symptoms of rapid heart beat or migraine headaches. Your particular pattern of symptoms also depends on your genetic makeup, any previous illness or injury, and your general history.
Recurrent episodes of acute stress can seriously affect the way you think and feel. Episodic acute stress can lead to difficulties in thinking, making decisions, judgment, and memory. Just when you really need your wits about you, stress steals them away.
As a consequence, you don’t think your way out of stressful situations very effectively, and, worse yet, poor decision making can lead to even more stress. Emotions are also triggered by episodic acute stress. At the very time you’re too stressed to think straight, you get hit with some combination of anger, anxiety, and depression. These emotional symptoms can range from mild to severe and may require professional help.
Emotions are only found in warm-blooded animals. The evolution of emotional behavior goes hand in hand with the phylogenetic development of the mammalian nervous system and reaches its greatest complexity at the human level. The brain system responsible for our emotions, the limbic system, is buried deep in our brain and is interconnected with all its other parts and systems, including the more “intelligent” parts and systems. The activity of our limbic system provides emotional color, excitement, vitality, and meaning to our thoughts, words, and behaviors.
Emotions are a vital part of human existence. They give meaning to life. While some emotional experiences are pleasant and we seek them, sometimes avidly, others are unpleasant, so we try to avoid feelings such as irritation, anger, apprehension, fear, sadness, grief, guilt, etc. We forget they are necessary elements of a well-rounded emotional life. Everyone experiences them at one time or another.
Avoiding unpleasant feelings doesn’t make them go away – you only become more vulnerable to them and give them time for incubation and growth. Dealing directly with unpleasant feelings, while painful, makes you stronger and rids you of them.
When your level of physiological arousal reaches your danger zone in frequently recurring episodes of stress, you’re likelier to experience anger, anxiety, and/or depression as symptoms. People who see stress as solely an emotional phenomenon often confuse it with anxiety. As we have shown, stress involves both mind and the body. Anxiety is just one of many possible symptoms of stress. There are, in fact, three emotional symptoms of stress: anxiety, anger and depression. These stress emotions are sometimes difficult to separate, often becoming so entangled that you don’t know what you’re feeling, except that you’re “upset.”
When emotions intensify, they feed on one another and can become so powerful they overwhelm you, bringing on fears of losing self-control and “going crazy.” One client described herself as a “bubbling cauldron of emotions about to boil over. Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes I’m depressed, and sometimes I’m just scared, but most of the time it’s all of the above. I’m frightened I’ll lose it and really make a mess of my life.”
One way to get control over your emotions is to sort them out by labeling them, but it’s not easy. Emotions are hard to describe because developmentally they precede language. Children express emotions long before they learn to speak.
It requires more than being articulate to label emotions effectively. People, particularly men, who have grown up in families who do not talk about emotions have difficulty labeling their feelings. Some families only allow expression of one or two feelings. For instance, a family with an anxious parent may talk frequently about anxiety and fear, but seldom about anger. Other families are comfortable with love but not anger, or vice versa.
You have much more control over your emotional state than you probably realize. What and how you think determines in large part what and how you feel; what and how you feel colors what and how you think. Getting control of your thoughts changes the way you feel, and getting control of your feelings alters the way you think. The techniques we describe here help you manage this complex equation.
You can use some of these techniques by yourself, but you may need help with others. Since many techniques involve relaxation, they tend to lower your metabolic rate and general level of physiological arousal. They may interact with any prescription medications you are taking for a seizure, cardiovascular, diabetic, or endocrine disorder. Be sure to check with your physician before using them.
You don’t want to get rid of emotions, you want to manage and get them under control. A three-step method of emotional release has helped many of our clients. The first step is to identify exactly what it is you’re feeling and label it. As we said before, emotions often defy description, but try. Building a better emotional vocabulary makes it easier. Write down as many adjectives as you can for anger, anxiety, and depression. Use a thesaurus, get words from friends, family, and co-workers. Sort your words in order of intensity. Learn to examine your emotional state and attach a label that describes it with some degree of accuracy.
Next, experiment with thoughts that increase the intensity of the emotion you’re feeling. Then try thoughts that will reduce that intensity. Rate the intensity level of your emotions on a one-to-ten scale. Learn to raise and lower your level with your thoughts.
Learning to release emotions is the third step. This can happen in a number of ways, such as acting them out, talking them out, or thinking them out. Shouting, crying, or being fearful takes the edge off your feelings, allowing you to think more clearly. You can talk about how you feel with a friend, family member, or counselor. Sometimes, images and thoughts can release you from emotions.
Too stressed to think straight?
Human beings are thinking animals. Your capacity for complex thought makes you what you are. In classical psychology, thought, or cognition, is seen as a process consisting of several steps: sensation, perception, apperception (conscious perception with full awareness), association, and memory. Your brain conducts these complex processes, with different sections more or less responsible for particular elements. Stress disrupts the functioning of those parts of your brain necessary for cognitive activity, just as it alters the functioning of the sections involved in emotion. When it does, it interferes with your cognitive processes on a number of levels.
Here’s what happens: Adrenaline from your adrenal gland stimulates a section of your nervous system buried deep in the brain, your ascending reticular activation system (ARAS). The ARAS, in turn, activates and energizes your brain, causing its neurons to fire two to three times faster than normal. This increase in brain activity not only creates emotional intensity, it makes you think faster. The greater your perceived burden of pressure, the greater the physiological arousal, the greater the stimulation of the ARAS, the greater the increase in brain activity. At high levels of arousal, your brain becomes hyperactive and so do you.
Brain hyperactivity has profound effects on how you think. Your thoughts race, with scattered fragments of incomplete ideas whirling about in your mind, your memory is impaired, your judgment deteriorates. You make hasty decisions that lead to impulsive, ill-advised actions; in turn, you create more problems and stress for yourself.
And the problem compounds itself. You get so used to your hyperactive brain and the thought and behavior patterns it generates, you think it’s normal. You may seek stimulating drugs, situations, or activities to whip it up when it starts to flag. Under conditions of recurrent stimulation, your ARAS becomes increasingly sensitive, requiring less and less adrenaline to exert its electrifying effect.
Your overstimulated brain creates problems for you when it’s time to slow down, however. You may seek “chemical help” to dampen its activity. A drink before dinner is ritualized chemical relaxation; similarly the “nightcap.” Muffling brain activity, we think, contributes significantly to the popularity of prescription and over-the-counter sleeping medications.
Hormones in disarray?
Your endocrine system is highly responsive to stress. It is responsible for mobilizing your body’s resources to deal with threats. Acting on signals from your brain, your hypothalamus alerts your pituitary gland, which then releases stress hormones into your blood stream. These blood-borne stress hormones travel to specific endocrine glands elsewhere in your body, which they stimulate to add more stress hormones into your blood stream in turn.
The most significant of these hormones are adreno-cortico-trophic hormone (ACTH), released by your pituitary, and the cortisol that ACTH releases from the outer layers of your adrenal glands. Cortisol plays a primary – and in the short term, beneficial – role in stress reactions. It increases the glucose from your liver and stimulates insulin from your pancreas to supply the quick energy needed for a fight-or-flight response. Cortisol increases the activity of your immune system and the excitability of your brain and sympathetic nervous system. It also protects against inflammation and fights off allergies.
While a number of hormones are released in relatively large amounts during times of stress, others are stopped or slowed to very low levels of production and release. Sex hormones, for instance, are inhibited by stress, leading to lowered sexual desire in both men and women, and to menstrual irregularities in women. Growth-hormone production and release diminishes, causing slow or arrested growth and development in children.
Your hormonal system is a delicately balanced instrument of numerous, interacting bits of biochemistry. Stress disrupts this balance by putting your system on a wartime footing. If this goes on too long, or if your hormonal system can’t synthesize key substances, it stops functioning normally. Stress symptoms then appear.
This process takes one to five years of fairly chronic stress. Once it happens, it takes time for your endocrine system to repair itself. There are no quick fixes. But your body has marvelous healing powers, as long as you provide a healthy diet, rest, and peace of mind.
Many endocrine problems are related to genetic predispositions, such as diabetes. While you may need medication to regulate an endocrine disorder, the stress of your personal life may throw your system further out of balance and escalate the need for medical care and medication.
Stress making you sick?
Your immune system operates as a microscopic army fighting a silent, relentless war against invading microorganisms and renegade cells turned cancerous. Like a xenophobic vigilante posse, it protects us against infections and malignancies by destroying, deactivating, or eliminating the enemy, searching relentlessly for strangers and either lynching them or riding them out of town on a rail.
There are two parts to the immune system: humeral and cellular. The humeral part floats through the body’s fluids. It is composed mainly of antibodies that fight bacterial and viral invasions. The cellular part fights viruses that get inside your body’s cells, transplanted tissue, fungi, protozoa, and cancer cells. When the humeral part breaks down, you are easy prey for infections such as colds or flu. When the cellular part breaks down, you are at risk of developing cancer, among other things.
Stress powerfully influences your immune system’s efficiency. Day in and day out, your immune system works quietly and independently to keep you healthy. If it’s overreactive, it may attack normal body tissue and you develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.
The cortisol and adrenaline that stimulate the physiological arousal of the stress reaction negatively impact the immune system. Numerous scientific studies show that stress can make the immune system either under- or overreact. Stress precipitates and/or exacerbates many infectious, malignant, allergic and autoimmune diseases.
One recent study demonstrated that stress increased susceptibility to the common cold. People with and without high levels of stress were exposed to the same cold viruses through a nasal spray. Those with high stress showed symptoms at a significantly higher rate of infection than low-stress people.
Stress-reduction strategies increase the efficiency of the immune system and alleviate the symptoms of disease. Nowhere have the effects of stress-reduction techniques on the immune system been shown as dramatically as in the behavioral treatment of malignant diseases such as cancer.