stressed person lying in bed

Stress – illness link – Part 1

Learning the difference between stress as a vague concept and our own personal stressors can be invaluable when we’re faced with difficult situations in our lives, at work, home and in our relationships.

The word ‘stress’ is confusing and vague. We use it to describe both the stressor and our stress response. It’s no wonder most of us cannot get a grip on how to manage our stressors.

Stressors are subjective. We all have different perceptions of what stressors are and different coping skills to deal with our perceived stressors. This is why some of us are affected by some things and others are not, and some of us bounce back quickly (resilience) while some of us take longer.

I cannot emphasise enough; stressors are subjective, different for all of us. Generally speaking, no two people will have the same stress response. This is why workplace stress-related illness and burnout statistics are increasing; employers insist one size fits all. It doesn’t.

Knowing that none of us are perfect and all of us are ‘hard wired’ to react to stressors in our own individual way is comforting. It makes the idea of stressors and stress response more accepting and enables open discussion, which in turn creates normality. So, going forward only using the words ‘stressor’ and ‘stress response’ will provide more clarity.

In the 1950s, experts described two types of ‘stress’; demands and pressures from our environments. ‘Eustress’ from positive stressors and ‘Distress’ from negative stressors.

Eustress helps us perform at our best and to meet our challenges; people we consider difficult but manageable, and events or situations we consider difficult but doable. We examine the risks, make a plan and are motivated to conquer the challenge. We believe we are in control, we can cope with the difficulties of the challenge. It’s worth the effort because we will feel enormous satisfaction and be sufficiently rewarded when we achieve our goal.

Distress is any negative acute or chronic stressors that trigger short or long-term acute or chronic stress responses.

Examples of acute stressors are things like a near car accident, exams, difficult conversations, going for an interview or meeting a deadline.

Chronic, long-term stressors are stressors in our salient domains; work, home, friends, relationships, family and health – all trigger long-term chronic stress responses. Our daily hassles are in this category because they are repeated on a daily basis.

Today we’ll dive into the brain-body connection of our acute stress response. Next time we’ll cover our chronic stress response.

To keep this simple, I call this short-term stress response SAM (Sympathetic Adrenal Medulla) The Match because it ignites as quickly as striking a match and, all going well, it burns out just as quickly.

After the brain receives information from our eyes, ears, nose, breathing (all our senses) about the stressor, it sends this information to the amygdala, the part of our brain responsible for emotional processing.

The amygdala immediately interprets this sensory information as a danger signal and sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the brain’s command centre that communicates with the rest of the body through the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), which in turn sends an emergency signal down the spine to the adrenal medullas, tiny glands located at the centre of the adrenal glands on top of both kidneys, to release the body’s defences.

First up is our biological (hormonal) system, which immediately reacts by pumping several different stress hormones into our bloodstreams; the strongest of which are adrenaline and nor-adrenaline. These hormones trigger all the physiological, psychological and behavioural responses by flooding our bloodstreams with massive amounts of blood sugar (glucose) and fats, supplying massive reserves of energy to all parts of the body and re-directing blood flow from our core, digestive system, immune system and brain; slowing these systems down so that our major muscle groups, our arms and legs are provided with the strength, speed, and agility we need to escape the real or perceived stressor. We feel the need to act.

Adrenaline and nor-adrenaline lock the body into a state of high alert until we deal with the stressor. “State of high alert” means stuck in a state of fear or anger; or both. It is important to remember that every time we activate SAM-The Match, we activate the same defence system whether our stressors are real or imaginary.

This is why it’s so important to be aware of our stressors and resolve them as soon as possible. High quantities of hormones over long periods wear organs and mind out.

Psychology of acute stress response: too much adrenaline leaves us in full alert mode, nervous, agitated, irritable, and argumentative; in short, very defensive. Too much nor-adrenaline causes an increase in our stress responses, anxiety, fear, depression, anger, burnout, impulsivity and even episodic violence. We cannot be team players, which disrupts our relationships.

Our stress responses cause inflammation that, over time, damages the health of our organs and general physical health. The longer we focus on stressors, the more problematic the inflammation, causing more physical and psychological illness.

Assess your stressors, separate your challenges from your distress and resolve your distress. Learn how to manage your stress response. Why? Because The Match lights The Candle.

When the threat has passed and the brain receives the signal that all is safe – through our low, deep breathing and our senses – the brain activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), ‘The Brake’.

Like the braking system of a car, The Brake sends signals via the vagus nerve, deep in our reptilian brain, directly to the areas slowed or shut down by SAM The Match; slowly blocking the release of adrenaline and nor-adrenaline and activating the production of GABA, bringing the body back to a state of rest, repair and restore; homeostasis.

This is the stress recovery system most of us ignore. We can manipulate this system by simply remembering to switch it on. Hint: hug someone you love … a lot.

 By Joan Maycock

Joan Maycock MSc Health Psychologist, BSc Psychologist, Counsellor Mediator, Consultant, Researcher, Trainer and Stress and Burnout Programme Developer. After living in the Netherlands, I moved to Portugal last year. My focus is on developing stress education programmes designed to get everyone thinking about reducing, preventing and managing stress and burnout.

915 793 592 | [email protected]