Stress is a fact of life, a life that consists of good and bad experiences, occasional life or death situations, assorted pressures and mishaps. As human beings we're designed to cope with stress, handle urgent situations, react accordingly, but once they're dealt with, it's important to allow time to recover, relax and become calm again.
It's been discovered that even babies growing in the womb are affected by any stress their host mother may be experiencing. And after birth, throughout our lives, situations we may experience, the way we're treated as well as our personality and DNA will all combine to influence our reaction and resilience to stress.
Consequently one person's reaction to stressful situations can vary dramatically from another's and indeed we can also find that we how we react to stress can vary from one day to the next. The way we're feeling, whether we've slept or not, our personal circumstances, relationship, domestic and financial situations all have a bearing on our ability to cope with stress.
When we're overloaded, not coping well with life, stress can become a negative factor in our lives and inhibit our body from taking care of itself, from functioning well, adapting, healing and repairing itself. The impact of persistent, unremitting stress is that it can ultimately cause emotional and health related issues.
Think about crossing a road in a leisurely fashion until you see a car racing towards you. At times like this our body will automatically go into 'fight or flight' mode. This motivates us to either run quickly out of harms way or stay and fight, whichever is deemed the most appropriate response. But if we find ourselves in a constant state of stress our body can become conditioned to be on 'red alert' all the time.
Let's look at what happens to our body when we're in stressful situations:
When we deem a situation to be stressful our sympathetic nervous system, which is part of the autonomic nervous system, activates the 'fight or flight' response and our brain sends signals to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine. This allows our body to deal with the immediate requirements for survival, act faster and physically prepare for action.
Recall the example I used of crossing the road. As the car quickly nears us we need to react quickly, run without thinking out of harms way. When we reach safety we may find that our heart's racing, stomach's churning, we may need to visit the bathroom as a matter of urgency, experience jelly legs, find that we're shaking, have difficulty breathing.
Our entire focus has been the immediacy of the situation. This causes the respiratory system to speed up, heart rate to increase, blood pressure to increase, liver to produce more glucose, more blood sugar for instant energy and muscle tone increase. Other body functions such as digestion, urinary and reproductive functions slow down or shut off for the duration, and blood may well drain away from the skin.
Over time chronic ongoing stress slowly depletes the body's reserves and can cause complications or diseases to affect the body's systems. It can even contribute towards a heart attack or stroke. Many of the recognised 360 physical symptoms of stress are often attributed to more serious physical conditions because those responses can cause palpitations, chest pain and rapid heart beat, gut-related problems like Irritable Bowel Syndrome or headaches.
Other symptoms can include loss of libido, food related issues like over or under-eating, sleeping problems, low energy, greater sensitivity to aches, pains, and tense muscles, frequent colds and infections, nervousness and shaking, ringing in the ear, cold or sweaty hands and feet, excessive sweating, dry mouth and difficulty swallowing, clenched jaw and grinding teeth. It's quite a catalogue!
Sustained stress can also impact on our emotional responses to situations, causing us to become easily agitated, frustrated and moody. We may find that we feel overwhelmed, like we're losing control or need to take control, have difficulty relaxing and quieting our mind, feel bad about ourselves (low self-esteem), lonely, worthless and depressed. We may even start to avoid others because of the stress it causes.
Physically, once the stress has abated:
After short periods of stress the parasympathetic nervous system tries to help us return back to normal, just as the sympathetic nervous system has intervened to help us deal with the demand to react and survive.
Once we learn to recognise our own personal warning signals of stress and that appreciate that our response to stress is becoming too intense we can start to introduce better ways to manage each situation. Introducing stress prevention and stress management techniques can help us to support better health and maintain a better quality of life for ourselves and those who are affected by our behaviour, those whom we come into contact with; family, friends, coworkers, even other road users!