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Stop the world, I want to get off! -

By Dr. Nick Hall

When we think of what affects our emotional well-being, the first concept that probably comes to mind is stress. Stress is a very complex subject. The word itself is one of the most misused in the English language, both in every day life and the medical field. It’s correctly used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective. But of all of its uses, its accepted definition in society is also its most inaccurate.

The word ‘stress’ has come to carry a solely negative connotation, yet it is important to realize that stress is an intrinsic component of good health. Stress is actually the stimulus that enables growth and development to occur. Consider this: inhalation, the act of expanding the lungs, is a stressor. This act of stress upon the lungs is then balanced by the recovery of exhalation. Now, if you breathe in and hold that breath, your body soon screams for its natural balance to be restored. It is not stress itself that is the culprit. It’s the lack of recovery from the stressors bombarding us which create havoc in our emotional and physical well-being. But through your ability to use and manipulate your emotions, you can take control of your physical and mental well-being.

Stress does create physiological changes, many of which are actually triggered by emotional reactions to the stressor. Stress is something to actively seek out, because as long as it’s balanced by an equal amount of recovery, your body and emotions are trained to withstand the stress without experiencing injury.

This probably sounds contradictory to what we’ve come to believe, since we are constantly told that stress should be avoided at all costs or at least reduced as much as is humanly possible. But this is absolutely wrong. Just think of what happens to a broken leg - it’s encased in a cast to protect it from all stress. Yes, this allows the bone to heal, but what happens to the immobilized muscles during that healing process? Exposed to no movement - no stress - they lose resiliency and, after the cast is removed, require progressive retraining through physical therapy before they can withstand even normal use. If you were to eliminate all stress from your existence, you would soon lose all emotional states - there would be no joy, no anguish, no exuberance, no grief. Technically, if all stress were eliminated, you would not even inhale and exhale. What would you be? Dead.

What we must realize is that it is not stress itself which causes our problems - it is the inappropriate responses to the stressors which ultimately lead to harm. By training ourselves to recognize imbalance between stress and recovery, we grasp the ability to recognize the imbalance created in our emotional and physical states. And through the use of emotion, we literally can alter our body’s physical response to the stressors we encounter.

While everybody manifests a stress response, it may vary from one individual to another. When confronted with a major stressor, some people may experience a rapid increase in heart rate. In others, the stomach feels as though it is twisted in knots, with a major impact on the gastrointestinal system. Yet others might experience tension headaches, caused by muscle tension. Although all of these symptoms have an actual tendency to occur, different individuals may have a predominance of one type of symptom or another. And it is noteworthy that the form of response will manifest in other types of situations as well.

There are different forms of stress - in particular, acute versus chronic. Acute stress is what happens within you when you’re suddenly cut off on the highway by a huge truck or when you climb aboard a roller-coaster for the first time. Your mental resources and physical body are actually very adept at dealing with this short-lived type of stress. What the mind and body are not equipped to handle is chronic stress. That’s because the response to stressors results in a switch from unessential building processes to the process of breaking things down.

Chemicals are produced within your body during the stress period as a response which enables the conversion of energy into a useable form. One of the chemicals involved in this process is cortisol, and one of its main missions is to fuel the ‘fight or flight’ response. This provides you with the energy needed to get yourself out of a mess. But if the stress is chronic - if you cannot remove yourself from the stressful situation - the continual release of cortisol begins to take a severe toll on the immune, cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems.

Mental health may also suffer and, because it takes energy to mobilize resources within your body during the stress response period, lethargy may set in when those sources of energy become depleted.


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