Let’s acknowledge it: we’re living in a stressful environment that deeply affect ourselves, our community, and of course, our children. When asked whether she’d support a rally against war, Mother Theresa answered: ‘No, but if you have a peace rally, I’ll be there!’. We focus all our attention on what we don’t want: stop crime, no crime, no violence, no poverty, fight crime, poverty, etc. When considering the law of attraction, this mind-set tends to create more of the same, as well as a tremendous amount of fear and stress inside ourselves and our children. What if we change our thoughts to: I want peace, calm and safety; I want to be surrounded by love, joy and gratitude; I find solutions; I observe what’s going on in my relationship with co-workers, and so on?
Work related distress is harmful to your health. So is personal distress. Not only does it double your risk for dying of a heart attack, long term unrelenting stress can be the cause or exacerbating factor in almost any of our modern day chronic diseases or ailments: from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, infections ranging from colds and flu to HIV/AIDS, cancer, skin problems, premenstrual tension, endometriosis, severe menopause, back problems, obesity and overweight, to chronic fatigue, digestive system problems and lung disease.
Stress management is of the utmost importance to maintain health and wellbeing and restore a sense of serenity and peace while maintaining creative, productive, high profile lifestyles.
Cigarette smoking, poor nutrition, substance abuse, a sedentary lifestyle and, most importantly high stress levels, are major contributing factors to work related health problems and reasons for employee absenteeism. Many studies show that psychological and physical factors in the workplace such as intense deadlines, poor interpersonal relationships, poor ergonomics, absence of a stimulating work environment and healthy work culture, as well as inadequate job descriptions, are also major contributors to employee absenteeism and increased health risk.
A well balanced life can be compared to the three sides of a triangle. The 3 sides are of equal length and importance and consists of a mental-emotional, physical and social side. If all of these are in balance, we enjoy good health and experience a sense of wellbeing.
The main purpose of understanding stress is to learn how to remain relaxed, calm, centred and in good health even with all the pressures of modern life
It is crucial that we make the daily practice of stress management and relaxation a priority in our busy lives. Stress management is just as, or even more important, than the financial and material wellbeing of ourselves, our families and our communities. It ensures physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. If we’re burnt out, exhausted and ill from too much stress, we won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of our labours or the interaction with our families and friends.
Why do we have a stress reaction?
Stress is the response our bodies experience as we adjust and adapt to our continually changing environment. It is aimed at helping us to survive and even thrive in our world. That’s why all living things have survived up to now! It has physical, mental and emotional effects on us and can create positive or negative feelings. As a positive influence, stress can compel us to action. It can result in a new lease on life and an enthusiastic creative approach to our work and environment, enabling us to enjoy life intensely. As a negative influence, it can result in feelings of fatigue, distrust, resentment, bitterness, rejection, anger, and depression, which in turn can lead to health problems such as headaches, upset stomach, ulcers, skin rashes, insomnia, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke. With the death of a loved one, a move to a new environment, the birth of a child, a job promotion, or a new relationship, we experience stress as we learn to readjust and manage our lives. In so adjusting to different circumstances, stress will help or hinder us depending on how we react to it. Stress helps us to adapt to change, the only constant in life!
The stress response isn’t all bad. When functioning properly, it is very good for you. Problems develop when your stress response overreacts or keeps acting when it’s no longer needed. The deciding factor lies in your ability to handle it.
Where does the stress reaction come from?
Let’s look at the animals. Man is, after all, also an animal. Animals are territorial. They fight and protect their territory from other animals. This ensures a safe shelter and enough to eat. They also protect their young from predators. They compete for a mate. Obviously, the greatest stress is a threat to life itself. Nature provided animals with protective responses: the fear instinct, with the fight or flight response. The minute an animal senses danger, it calls up all reserves in its body. It acts in one of 2 ways to ensure survival: it either fights if strong enough, or runs away if the attacker is stronger. Once the danger has passed, after the intense physical release of energy, the animal settles down to resting state as though nothing has happened. The fear instinct has done its job.
The same instincts and protective responses reside in the human being. It comes from an area in the brain called the limbic system. The mammalian and reptilian brain, both very old parts of the brain, are also the brains we share with lower and higher animals. The stress response is also the same. We, however, are not continuously faced with a dinosaur threatening our survival. Most of our stress is psychological, created in our minds and by our lifestyles, our thoughts that then lead to stress filled emotions which trigger the stress reaction’s cascade of biochemical and neurological impulses that course throughout our bodies, our cells, our systems, impacting every fibre of our being.
It is as though a cave man forefather still lives inside our brains, always ready to push the red alert button when threatened by a lethal dinosaur. Even in our modern world, this primitive instinct can still save our skins when faced with eminent danger or a threat to our lives. This happens for example when you’re travelling in your car. Suddenly somebody cuts right in front of you. In an instant, the total resources of the body is mobilised. The sympathetic nervous system and certain hormones signal the lungs to work faster, the heart to beat faster, to send more oxygen and nutrients through the blood stream to the muscles. The liver, a store house of readily available glucose (in the form of glycogen) for energy, releases large amounts of this into the blood stream. Show adrenal glands: The adrenal glands secrete hormones to stimulate the heart (show heart beating) to beat faster and stronger, to get more oxygen and nutrient rich blood to the muscles. Other areas of the body, not directly involved in the stress reaction, like the skin, stomach and digestive system, receives less blood with less oxygen and nutrients. This makes more blood available to the muscles for fight or flight. All this happens within a split second. You slam on the breaks and prevent an accident. Afterwards you’re angry but also relieved. You might feel sleepy afterwards. Your fast breathing rate and pulse rate soon return to normal. Like any animal, man has used up the surplus energy of the stress reaction, released a bit of steam, will feel tired, a little shaken but will soon return to a state of equilibrium. This is called type 1 stress.
Why is stress then such a problem in our modern lifestyles, often leading to burn-out, or disease?
Unlike animals, man has more than a survival instinct. He has a brain with a superior intellect, with a brilliantly creative and active imagination and often long term chronic exposure to, and perceived experience of, a stressful lifestyle. This creative imagination can create unreal dangers, giving rise to unnecessary stresses and strains.
Perhaps the most significant background stressor is the ever increasing rate of change experienced in modern society. Change generates stress by forcing us to make adjustments in our lives, often in a climate of uncertainty and unpredictability. It is a background stress which is always present like static on a TV screen.
To illustrate the acceleration of change, consider the following chart depicting events in our past history:
Birth of earth
New levels of consciousness
Next, we’ll consider the different kinds and types of stress, the harmful type 2 stress and a little information on the anatomy and physiology of stress; just enough to understand why stress, or rather distress, is linked to all our modern day chronic lifestyle diseases.