How is stress defined? What is the genesis of this challenging and destructive feeling? One definition of stress is that it is a sense that we are unable to cope with a particular situation, that we are not capable of performing adequately, or that we are not capable of dealing with the demands of the position.
This is a broad definition, but it defines stress as a negative emotion. Stress is always related to negative feelings. As we accumulate stress, we may experience a build-up of the hormone adrenaline. The accumulation of this hormone causes physiological reactions which in their turn may cause a multitude of physical symptoms and even illnesses.
Which Life Situations May Cause Stress?
A business man may confess that his job stresses him, that he is stressed by being always busy. A counselor may ask this person to describe his position and why it is stressful to him. The man may say that he enjoys his work and that he likes the people who cooperate with him. At this point, the counselor may need to enquire further because it is evident that this man is quite happy at work. He is well-paid and has a good position. So what is the real reason for this man’s feelings of stress? If he is happy at work, then he cannot be feeling stressed about that. We recall that the definition of stress is that it is always linked to a negative emotion.
Further questioning may reveal that the man is stressed by something other than being busy at work. He may not be as busy as he thinks he is because stress is a subjective experience. His feelings of pressure and strain may be related to:
*Issues to do with his relationships
*Guilt over not spending enough time with his children
*Something else which he is not yet willing to discuss
Many life situations can cause stress. A homemaker, who stays at home all day may feel just as anxious as her partner does, even though she does not have to cope with the demands of a job. She may be feeling bored and lonely. She may be unable to deal with her children, day after day, without help.
She may experience feelings of inadequacy and helplessness if she is unable to run a household as well as care for her husband and children. If she receives an unsympathetic response from her husband when she tries to discuss these things, she may begin to feel that her self-image has been lowered and she may become depressed.
These negative emotions are common causes of stress. Many people in many situations develop feelings of stress. Stress is a very personal reaction; no two people experience a life situation in the same way.
What Type of Stress Occurs During Traumatic Situations?
In this article I would like to take our research into the topic of stress one step further: I would like to explore not just life situations but life dramas, the situations in which we experience massive amounts of stress and in which our bodily systems can be flooded with huge amounts of adrenalin. This is the sort of reaction may be caused by having a car accident, or an even more traumatic event such as a surviving through a tsunami.
A life drama or crisis may also be due to significant and unrelenting levels of Stress which accrue over a period. There is no particular episode or event which triggers this build-up of stress. These accumulated feelings of tension and pressure cannot continue without a break.
They may be caused by negative feelings about employment or the lack of work. They may be due to the struggle to maintain positive relationships by those who are shy and introverted. Any worry or nervous tension that is experienced relentlessly will cause a similar physiological reaction to the experience of a life drama – levels of the hormone adrenalin will continue to mount up, and finally, adrenaline will flood the system.
Stress Causes Physiological and Psychological Symptoms
As we explore the results of an accumulation of adrenaline in the body, we perceive that some of the body’s most important muscles are affected. Muscles such as those in the chest and shoulders become tenser and tighter. Heart palpitations and the onset of diseases of shortness of breath such as asthma are produced. Hunched shoulders and muscular pain may also result from this tightness in the muscles.
Muscular aches and pains are some of the most common physiological responses to long-term stress. The thighs and the arms may be affected the most, and this sensation of tension can produce fatigue. The whole body may feel as fatigued as if an individual had been carrying a large backpack or a heavy load of shopping for a very long distance without being able to put it down. The feeling of exhaustion may persist in the muscles because they have been tensed for so long.
Another symptom of a residue of high adrenalin is shallower breathing. An alteration in the patterns of the breathing is caused by the rigidity of the muscles in the chest wall. When those big muscles become tensed or rigid, they squeeze the lungs tightly so that breathing becomes impaired. The body is no longer able to take in enough oxygen due to this decrease in the lung’s ability to expand.
When this occurs, it becomes necessary for the brain to send a message to the part of the nervous system that controls the breath. After this signal has been received an individual may take a deep breath and then sigh. Both yawning and sighing are the outward signs of a lack of oxygen in the human system. Both of these actions cause an individual to expand the lungs and draw in a larger than normal breath. The tightening of the chest wall that is caused by anxiety and stress is then relieved.
Lack of sleep is a very common symptom of stress. This is because when stress occurs, the body becomes overcharged with the stress hormone adrenaline. No one can relax when his or her system is charged with this substance which is designed to keep the system alert, responsive and in “on-guard” mode. This highly alert mode is symptomatic of high levels of stress.
It would be contradictory for an individual to let themselves surrender to sleep while they in this state of high alertness. It could be compared to the action of a guard who falls asleep while on duty. Like the guard, a human who is charged with adrenaline is always on the lookout for danger.
The stress caused by a lack of sleep causes the internal levels of adrenaline to increase without stopping. The brain becomes hyper-alert as it searches for any dangers, like a wild animal constantly aware of the hunter. Another good analogy of this hyper-tense state is a meerkat on sentry duty. The meerkat will never relax while his duty is to protect his companions. The animal will continuously scan the horizon and the closer environs for danger. This is truly what it means not to be able to relax.
Sensitive people are often highly-strung and nervous. Their particular brain chemistry and adrenalin-fuelled systems cause them to be worriers. These sensitive people tend to catastrophize as they perceive more and more threats around them. The brain tends to become stuck in a pattern of over-worrying, and this causes a vicious cycle of anxiety and the creation of more and more adrenaline to become a permanent feature of the anxious person’s character.
This cycle of endless jitters is very destructive; eventually, it will affect the parasympathetic nervous system. This part of the autonomic nervous system is responsible for calming and relaxing the entire system. When it becomes depleted, it can longer function as it should.
In other words, though we may resort to self-soothing talk, the parasympathetic system will still be producing adrenaline. A constant state of apprehension will remain in place even though soothing phrases such as “settle down – you can get through this.” and “It is OK, you are a big girl now. You know you can do this -” are repeated over and over.
Once the parasympathetic nervous system has been damaged, it is hard to repair it. The constant production of adrenaline at the slightest vexation results in its inability to restore calmness. The cortex can no longer respond to the message to relax and de-stress.
The constant presence of stress and hypervigilance result in a state of traumatisation. Acute or chronic traumas produce an out-of-control feeling as if we have survived an automobile accident, but the vehicle is still moving. Traumatization can take away our feelings of being able to manage our lives and our sense of self-agency.
At this point in the damaging of the parasympathetic nervous system, other physiological symptoms may appear. The autonomic nervous system which regulates functions that are not consciously controlled such as blinking, heart rate, arousal, respiratory rate and digestion no longer operates normally.
While we are in this condition, small amounts of stress may cause, for instance, constipation or diarrhea, while larger doses of stress may result in long-term problems within the digestive tract. Irritable bowel syndrome or ulcerative colitis are examples of such long-term distress symptoms. These are major diseases within the human body.
Traumatic stress may impair the reproductive systems of both men and women. Women may undergo alterations to their menstrual cycle, which may cease altogether or start to flow intermittently. Research has shown that men too may experience changes in their reproductive systems.
Advanced medical photography has shown that a man’s semen may develop a lower count of spermatozoa and therefore be less fertile and the amount of semen that a man produces may decrease. These deficits are a direct result of the impairment of the autonomic nervous system that is brought about by traumatic levels of stress.
As we have seen the autonomic nervous system is divided into two segments: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Damage to the autonomic nervous system results in damage to the immune system as these two structures are interrelated. Once again damage to the immune system is hard to repair, because of the system’s complexity and its correlation to the autonomous nervous system. Damage to this system can result in increased vulnerability to colds and flu as well as flare-ups in diseases such as eczema or glandular fever.
The Role of Serotonin
Serotonin is the brain’s primary feel-good chemical. This very significant brain-chemical is depleted with the increase of adrenaline. Serotonin not only allows us to feel good it helps us to think well. In other words, the fluidity of our thoughts is improved when we have healthy levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This essential neurotransmitter causes the electrical impulses in the brain to spark rapidly across the billions of neurons that exist in the brain. This is a technical description – in reality, serotonin affects our ability to engage in meaningful tasks and interactions. If we are with friends, having fun and laughing, we would also be able to brainstorm some interesting ideas on the same occasion, just for fun.
Lowered levels of serotonin within the brain cause feelings of despondence. Nothing seems to interest us and life becomes dull, empty and unexciting. Even though we may push ahead regardless of these depression-like symptoms, nothing will please us. We will find no pleasure even tasks which we formerly carried out with enthusiasm; such is the power of serotonin to create pleasure or its lack.
As well as its ability to affect the levels of pleasure that we experience in our lives, serotonin affects the quality of our thinking. A lack of serotonin causes our brain to become less active as without adequate levels of this neurotransmitter the electrical impulses which create our thoughts cannot “jump” from neuron to neuron. Out thinking becomes irrational, more influenced by anxiety. We may not realize this at the time but once we have recovered from anxiety- or panic- attack, we can retrace our thinking and see its actual irrationality. This sad state of affairs is caused by our internal biology and an imbalance in our brain chemistry.
Some mental rigidity may then come into play, as our thoughts, without the impetus of serotonin does not jump as far or in as many different directions across the neurons. Our thoughts may become limited and less creative. A bit of inflexibility may slip into our thinking.
If our thoughts are becoming more fixed because the electrical impulses are not as active, they tend to become repetitive. They return to their place of origin within the brain, and they cannot go any further. This creates the awful feeling of being stuck. Suddenly we cannot think properly, or we can hardly think at all. We feel blocked. We do not feel like doing anything at all – not even the very next thing that ensures our good survival, such as cooking a meal. This can’t-be-bothered feeling is a sign of low levels of serotonin and what a foggy feeling it is.
The left-over electrical impulses produce this dismal state of mind. If they cannot jump excitedly from neuron to neuron, they still must go somewhere. Sad to say, this “somewhere” may be around and around in circles. Dwelling on individual thoughts, being unable to consider or develop new solutions, ruminating and over-thinking are synonyms for this process. If we are feeling happy, we do not dwell on negative thoughts. We do not have time to ruminate when we are busily and productively occupied.
It is when we are sad or “down” that we dwell on things, often the same things over and over. It may be difficult to halt such a cycle of anxiety because when we do dwell on things, the sense of unease that is produced causes more and more adrenaline to flow into our system.
The adrenaline will increase the anxiety and negative thinking so that that serotonin levels will be lowered, even more, causing anxiety to become further ingrained in the personality. Inaccurate and irrational thinking may produce a burden of fears that we do not believe can be overcome. Irrational and obsessive habits may also be formed.
One of the most soul-destroying results of the combination of decreased serotonin and irrational thinking is low self-esteem. Low self-esteem or a poor self-image is something that can powerfully affect our lives almost in the same way that a disease does. Good self-esteem is virtually a necessity in living well. Self-esteem is a process in our thoughts.
If we could visualize our thoughts or be more aware of them, we would realize that they are often self-critical. We often judge ourselves as not good enough, as unacceptable or less than the norm. We may entertain a continuous belief that we are “bad” people. Variations on this theme are our thoughts of being useless, pathetic, unattractive, unintelligent or uninteresting.
As we dwell on this list of negative attributes we are unwittingly reinforcing an increase in levels of adrenaline in our system. As we have already noted, this can become a vicious cycle that lowers our self-esteem even further and affects our behavior. It is an ongoing chain-reaction, that moves through the cycles of increased adrenalin and decreased serotonin repeatedly.
There is an easy method of understanding the relationship of adrenaline to serotonin. Draw a picture in your mind of a set of scales. See how the two sides are balanced when the scales are at rest. Now put the chemical adrenaline in the small container on the left side of the scales and the chemical serotonin in the small container on the right side of the scales.
You will notice that the balances or small containers on either side of the scales act as a counterweight to each other. As the quantity of adrenalin on the left-hand side of the scales increases, the amount of serotonin on the right-hand side of the scales decreases and vice-versa: the quantity of serotonin on the right-hand side of the scale increases as the amount of adrenaline decreases.
Self-esteem is very much influenced by the presence of adrenaline, so much so that it could be effectively placed in the small container on the right-hand side of the scales with the serotonin. It could be said that serotonin is a “pre-cursor” to high self-esteem.
We all notice how good we feel after spending a great day with friends. When we arrive home, the good feelings continue. We remain on that rosy cloud, full of good cheer and happiness. We do not feel at all stressed. The next day, though, we are confronted with a challenge. We may have decided to organize a dinner party and to invite the very same friends we saw the day before to share the feast. Suddenly, we realize that there are a few things that have gone wrong. Perhaps we have forgotten to chill the wine and left it on the kitchen bench to get warm. Maybe we have not purchased enough meat for the barbecue. We may even have purchased some bruised potatoes and discovered that we would not be able to cook with them. Oh dear.
We start to feel stressed; our adrenaline levels are rising, and our contiguous levels of serotonin are therefore depleted. All of a sudden the critical voices start up their chorus: “I am so hopeless. Why didn’t I check that the wine was refrigerated? Why didn’t I buy enough meat? I should have known this would happen. My friends will hate it. Anyway, they probably won’t turn up.” The familiar damaging thoughts start to churn around and on and on they go.
A Possible Solution
We should be starting to realize that all of these negative thoughts are caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. Once we fully understand this and see it in our minds, we are the path to improvement. We come to realize that if we can change the way in which we perceive a situation if we change our viewpoint, we are completely capable of changing the way we feel. This change in the way we feel may, in turn, modify the balance or imbalance of neurotransmitters in our brain.
This is an empowering realization. As we take more responsibility for the way we feel, we realize that we can manage our stress levels. This makes it easier to determine what we are going to do next as we retain a rational approach and feel more in control of our behavior.
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