Humans have always lived in a world with stress, and our bodies are adapted to deal with stresses. However, through evolution, our bodies are most suited to deal with acute stressors, not chronic stress. And because of this quirk, our modern life which sustains stressful situations for long periods of time, creates lots of chronic stress related disease.
Fight or Flight
When we humans were more controlled by our environment, we developed a marvelous and quite miraculous system to survive. This is called our “Fight or Flight” response. In general, a threat, such as a lion or a troupe of enemies armed with pointy spears, would trigger a series of chemical events which ready our body for immediate fight or immediate flight. It worked great.
Now our dangers are, well, less “pointy”. A really surly boss does not pose the same threat as a mammoth and fighting or fleeing is not necessarily the most beneficial or the most productive solution. And while meeting a deadline at work would appear to be directly related to survival (not losing your job which pays for your food), as say, killing the deer, the fight or flight response is still a tad inappropriate.
So our bodies have yet to catch up with our modern life.
Or better yet–we have yet to learn how to use our bodies to our advantage in modern life.
Some people use stress to gain peak performance. This “good” stress, which enhances your abilities instead of disabling them is called eustress.
When in peril, your body mounts an immediate response to prepare for action. Your breathing and heart rate increase, your blood pressure goes up, your pupils dilate (to see the threat), and you begin to sweat (to cool the body for the coming battle). At the same time, the brain starts excreting hormones like mad, to coordinate the muscles, nervous system, and endocrine system so that you are at peak performance. Digestion ceases and your energy is diverted to your muscles.
After the threat leaves, all of this reverses itself, and your body goes back to a relaxed state. You eat the deer and talk about how brave you were fighting the lion. Everyone laughs and you go to bed happy.
General Adaptive Stress: Stress Gone Mad
But in our modern world, our stressors do not have finite end. After the surly boss leaves and you get a call about a new deadline. When you hang up, the school nurse calls and you must pick Jimmy up from school. You stop to get dinner as you go home; you have a fight with your teenager about homework; your ex calls to change plans for the weekend. You go to bed angry and worried and get up the next day to do it all again. Your heart raced all day, your blood pressure was up and your hormones were nuts from all the stressors, real and imagined.
Hans Seyle is the Father of Stress Research–much of our understanding of chronic stress begins with his research.
This constant state of stress arousal leads to General Adaptive Stress, or GAS.
When the Nervous System is Constantly Vigilant
Our nervous system has two parts to it.
The somatic manages the body’s movements and processes external stimuli. This is under our conscious control.
The autonomic system functions in the background of our consciousness, and this is what functions during stress.
There are three parts to the autonomic system. The sympathetic system is in charge of emergencies. The parasympathetic is in charge of resting, relaxation, and “normal” metabolic function. The entericsystem manages digestion. To understand stress, the relationship between the sympathetic and parasympathetic system is important.
Our sympathetic nervous system switches on in emergencies. It keeps us acute and ready for action. It is yang, energizing, active, aroused and short term oriented.
The other part of the automatic nervous system is the parasympathetic system. This is yin, calming, and soothing. The parasympathetic system has a long term view for growth, maintenance, and health. It should be operating most of the time.
Chronic stress is when we operate in the sympathetic nervous system long term, without end. This never ending “alert” is called General Adaptive Stress.
Phases of General Adaptive Stress
There’s an alternative stress reaction: “Tend And Befriend” and mothers do it naturally.
There are 3 phases recognized in General Adaptive Stress:
1. Alarm– This is the initial fight or flight stage. The body readies itself for action. The hypothalamus in the brain activates the hormones, especially the adrenal glands. Steroids flood the blood. The heart begins beating faster and the bronchial tubes dilate to increase breathing. The liver releases sugar into the blood.
2. Resistance– If the stress continues, we enter resistance phase. This stage is tricky because from many indicators, our body adapts to the stressor and we appear to cope. The initial alarm cycle recedes and the adrenals return to their normal size. However, the body is still over producing hormones and this puts wear and tear on all organs and makes fertile ground for inflammation and disease. Cortisol levels remain high. Here we are at the “I’m at my max” state of mind. Defense mechanisms and coping strategies all increase and we are ready to crack at the slightest event.
3. Exhaustion– If the stress still has not stopped, we enter exhaustion phase. Here our alarm reaction may reappear, with increased respiration and heart rate, sweating, etc., but we have no reserves to feed it. We are exhausted, depleted and often not thinking like ourselves. Our immune system is worn down; the heart and blood vessels are weakened. There is nothing left.
In this final stage, the risk for disease and illness is the greatest, although as one advances through all the stages of stress, the body make break down from abnormal hormone levels and metabolic activity.
But even more important, chronic will affect a person’s emotions, making all our personal relations strained.