What Is Stress?

Stress is not all bad. Without some stress we would not get up in the morning, we wouldn't enjoy a challenge, feel the buzz of competition. The thrill of the roller-coaster would be gone and sex would be boring. On the other-hand with too much stress we might dread getting up in the morning, a challenge would be terrifying, competition would feel threatening, and sex - forget it.

There are times in life when we can take on and accomplish big things. We rise to the challenges and meet the enormous stresses with ease. And then there are the times when we become completely overwhelmed by one tiny little extra demand. What is it that detirmines our capacity for stress and why does that change? 

I have found it really useful to understand how stress works at a biological level. So much of what goes on in our bodies, our thoughts, feelings and the things we find ourselves doing when we get stressed, are automatic and normal. It's good to know that. When you find yourself stressed your body is responding in ways that are designed to keep you safe. 

How Does Stress Feel?

Just imagine a stressfull situation - giving a talk, taking a test, meeting a deadline. The symptoms of stress that we all recognise are an increase in our heart rate, we may also feel our hearts pounding harder,  breathing will be shallower. The mouth goes dry. Parts of the body tense-up; the shoulders and neck. There may be a tightening in the chest or belly. It is often easier to spot stress in other people than to notice our own. Actuallly we are very tuned in to other peoples stress - we read the signs consciously or un-consciously. Faces look pinched, or flat. There maybe movements - foot tapping, darting eyes, fiddling. Emotionally we often feel flat, or on edge and unstable, prone to outbursts. It can be hard to think clearly, or our thinking is confused. There is a sense of isolation, we feel disconnected from other people, stuck in our own little bubble of worry. It's hard to communicate clearly, it's difficult to understand what is happening, it can be impossible to know what we need.

Our Nervous System

flight1.pngStress is what happens when our bodies respond to what is percieved as danger - a threat. It may not be immediately obvious why our bodies would respond to a situation like being late for an appointment, as danger, but I will come to that later. For the time being, imagine a real-time big threat - being faced by a snarling, fierce dog. Our brains receive the information from our senses - the dog, the teeth, the growling and makes a very quick assessment of the danger. We don't have to think about this. These are instinctive responses that happen in a primitive part of our brain that we share with most vertebrate animals. If the assesment is 'threat', hormones are released into the blood that put the body into danger mode. 

The autonomic nervous sytem (ANS) is the part of our wiring that controls all the bodies systems - heart beat and circulation, breathing, digestion, excretion, hormone production, reproduction. We don't have to be consciously in charge of these systems - they just do their thing, controlled by the ANS. When the brain sends the danger signal, one half of the ANS called the Sympathetic Nervous System, comes on-line.


The sympathetic nervous system is like the accelerator pedal in a car - it revs us up for action. When we are in danger our body needs to do what it can to get away from the threat. If it can't get away, then it needs to be able to defend itself. To run from our snarling dog, we need our muscles to be able to work fast and furiously and they need blood full of oxygen and glucose.

The sympathetic nervous system does a number of things to achieve this. Our heart rates go up and the heart beats harder to pump the blood to the muscles quicker. The heart needs enough blood to push through so the blood pressure is increased. All the small blood vessels in the skin have tiny muscles that contract to shut off the blood supply to the skin. This pushes the blood into the core, increasing the blood pressure.

That blood needs lots of oxygen too - the tiny little bronchioles of the lung expand to let in more air so more oxygen can get to the blood and be carried to the muscles. The pancreas stops producing insulin which causes the liver to release glucose into the blood stream to fuel the muscles.

The decision that the body makes in response to danger is to prioritise the systems that are needed to get us moving - to run or fight. All the other systems are turned off. When we are running from a predator we don't need to waste energy on digesting breakfast, our reproductive systems are not needed, immune responses are an unnescesary luxury.

It is this response to stress that is behind many of the illnesses that people suffer from today. If our sympathetic nervous system is being repeatedly turned on by percieved threat, then those systems that allow us to digest food, repair the body, fight off infection, reproduce, are being turned on and off too. This takes its toll. Bowel problems, alternating constipation & diarrohea, IBS. Depleted immune reponse, endless colds and infections. Fertility, libido and sexual problems. Hypertension and heart problems. There are many conditions, more being recognised as being stress-related all the time. 


Fortunately, the other half of the ANS, the parasympathetic nervous system, is what restores calm and relaxes us. Our bodies are not designed to be on high alert all the time - the sympathetic nervous sytem is our emergency mode. When the snarling dog backs off and bounds away to chase a stick, the danger passes. Our instinctive brain turns on the parasympathetic which is like the brake pedal of the car, it slows everything down again - phew! This switches off the production of adrenaline and other stress hormones, lowers the heart rate, deepens the breathing, warms the skin and turns back on all those suspended systems.  


How does it feel to be relaxed?

If you have ever had a massage, laid on the beach, watched the world go by from somewhere with a good view or snuggled up with someone you love, you will know what it feels like when your parasympathetic nervous system comes back on-line. 

Often the first thing we do is take a deep breath, or sigh contentedly. Our pulse gently slows down. Blood pressure falls. Our muscles begin to loosen, shoulders drop, we allow our bodies to rest back. You may notice that your tummy rumbles and gurgles as the digestive system comes back on. People having a massage often dribble as the body starts making saliva again.

As our bodies begin to relax the thinking or cognative parts of the brain come back on too, we may find ourselves day-dreaming or having creative ideas. Emotionally we feel more peaceful, calmer, contented, happy. We feel able to meet with what is occuring. Our capacity to deal with difficulty is expanded.

To be continued ...