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Acute and Chronic Stress

If you were to sit down and list the stuff that stresses you out, and then analyze your list, I am fairly certain that most everything on your list would be chronic social or psychological stressors, like money problems, relationship problems, work-related problems, time-management problems etc. Perhaps some of you may have a chronic physical stressor on your list, like always being hot, or always being cold, or possibly being in chronic pain. Other possible chronic stressors may be poor nutrition, inadequate hydration, and/or sleep.  However, I would bet my bottom dollar that no one would have an acute physical stressor on your list, because if it were very acute, (like your house is burning down, and you have to get yourself and the kids out right now) you wouldn’t have time to write it down - you would be trying to save your skin.

Our body’s stress response is designed primarily to save our lives in times of acute physical stress. This sort of stress tends to be relatively short-lived, (like running from a bear on a hike) because then we are either dead (caught by the bear!), or our parasympathetic system (the rest and repair side of the nervous system) takes over, bringing all our systems back to their relaxed state.

There are two major parts to our stress response - the sympathetic nervous system secretes epinephrine and norepinephrine, two neurotransmitters, which cause increased heart rate, increased blood pressure by constricting blood vessels, and which cause the movement of the blood out of the digestive tract and into the limbs so we can run or fight. Often memory and sensory awareness improves - all very useful to saving our lives. In addition to that, our adrenals secrete glucocorticoids, like cortisol and glucagon in order to elevate blood sugar, so we will have the fuel we need immediately to fight or run.

So, what happens if you are constantly in a state of gut-wrenching worry over, say, your teenager who may be hanging out with the wrong crowd? Physiologically speaking, your body/mind responds as if you are about to be killed - you have the same stress response described above. Even though in actuality your life is not being threatened - it is only your worried thoughts that have activated the stress response. The problem is that the worry may not be a short-lived thing. Maybe you are a chronic worrier. That means that your sympathetic system is overactive, your parasympathetic or rest and repair system is suppressed, your heart is working harder than it should be, your blood pressure remains too high, your digestion is effected because blood is prioritized to the muscles, your libido goes down (sex isn’t important if your brain thinks you are about to die), initially you have too much cortisol pumping through you trying desperately to help you cope with all the stress until, over time, the adrenals get exhausted and simply can’t pump out anymore cortisol. Then you begin to feel extremely tired, coping becomes more and more of an issue, you get sick very easily - it is as if your immune system has gone on strike, and depression may set in.  Then, over time, you may get cardiovascular disease, colitis, irritable bowel, ulcers, or even cancer.

So, even though our stress-response system can be lifesaving, if our stress is chronic, it becomes a health robber. Think of the body as being a giant stress bucket, if the bucket is overflowing with stress, we are hurting or unwell.  Anything we can do to poke holes in the stress bucket will help, including eating the best quality food, drinking adequate water, sleeping enough hours in the dark, etc.  

Because most of our stress these days tends to be psychological or emotional, learning how to think differently about our problems can be hugely stress-reducing. Often our minds run the same stressful stories over and over again. So, when that happens, bring your mind back to the question: is the situation within my control or not? If it is, then what can I do to alter the situation to my satisfaction? If not, then there is nothing I can do about it, so I may as well accept the situation as the reality that it is, and not make myself sick fretting about it. Much easier said than done, I fully admit. But if you keep forcing yourself to come back to the question, you can actually train yourself to react differently.