Stress is an ever-increasingly popular term invading our language and life. Medically speaking, stress is a group of chemicals known as catecholamines and steroids. The better known are adrenaline and noradrenaline . The body’s natural steroids, Cortisol being the most prominent, have a marked influence on the system and are produced in response to stress.
Stress may be psychologically induced, as common usage of the word conveys, but the chemicals are also produced through physical discomfort from overexercising, excessive tiredness and unfavourable environmental conditions . The stress chemicals may also be produced as a response to toxicity from pollution, ingestion of toxins or food allergy.
It is worth differentiating between stress and pressure. Every animal reacts better if there is a certain amount of adrenaline in the system. A challenge or an exciting prospect may produce a small amount of stress chemical, which will create a certain amount of ‘drive’ to perform a function. This is a good thing. In fact I would go so far as to say that without pressure we may not fare so well. Stress is an overproduction of adrenaline and other stress chemicals.
Stressors have evolved with us and are the principal reason why most animals survive. If other hormones had as strong an influence as stress chemicals, emotions other than fear and a need to fight would have become prominent. For example, if sex hormones exerted a stronger influence than adrenaline then our distant ancestors might have carried on making love despite the arrival of a sabre-toothed tiger. Those of our ancestors who had a stronger adrenaline response would run away. Those who did not would finish the job and probably be killed.
Natural selection has, therefore, provided us with a very sensitive anxiety response. We are no longer confronted by sabre-toothed tigers and life-threatening situations are few and far between, but we all have to face anxiety, ranging from ‘where will we get our next meal?’ and ‘will we have a roof over our head?’, to battles with our partners, bank managers and other road users! Our brain recognizes a stressful situation and tries to produce the relevant amount of adrenaline for it. Going into an unhappy job every day will produce a certain amount of adrenaline, being confronted by a masked knife-wielding foe will produce more. However, the latter event that produces a large amount of adrenaline immediately may be matched by the production of lower levels in response to lesser anxiety over a longer period of time. The long-term effects of persistent low-level stresses are well established and can cause an array of diseases and conditions, ranging from angina to ulcers. There are considered to be three stages in a stress reaction.
Initial response or alarm reaction
Faced with a dangerous situation, the level of stress hormones will rise causing two fundamental changes. Adrenaline and noradrenaline will open up blood vessels to the brain, heart, lungs and muscles, thereby encouraging oxygenation and nutrition to the organs that need to think, oxygenate and move the body. Cortisol and other steroids will flood the bloodsteam with glucose, providing energy. In combination with catecholamines, the blood supply to those organs not needed in a fight is then reduced by closing their arteries. Kidney and liver function will slow down and, more noticeably, a lack of blood to the skin will make us go pale, a lack of blood to the bladder will make us want to pass urine and a lack of blood to the bowel will make us register a need to defecate. In extreme shock we may go white, urinate and soil ourselves.
This so-called ‘fight or flight’ response increases the heart rate and the strength of heart contraction, increases the rate of breathing, increases sweat production and effectively prepares us for action.
Comedown or resistance
The second stage is the comedown or resistance reaction. Here the body is no longer primed for action but is dealing with the abundance of chemicals and changes within the physiology of the body that have taken place.
At some point after the resistance reaction an exhaustion phase may manifest. Under extreme stress the body may faint or even die. This is characterized by those who have noticed that helping an injured animal may initially be tolerated but by the time the animal has been placed in a box and taken to the vet it will have died. The initial fear was so great that when its life was ‘spared’ the resistance and exhaustion phases led to severe biochemical changes causing its death. It is rare to see this in human beings but all of us will have experienced the ‘anticlimax’ and exhaustion following anxious or nerve-wracking events such as exams or a first date!
The important aspect from all of this discussion is to appreciate that stress is a chemical reaction not a psychological state of mind, although the latter produces the former. Stress does not have to be manifested in sleeplessness, trauma or wide, staring eyes but can be produced without symptoms by a low persistent rate of stress chemical production. Stress creates excess energy or extra activity for the brain, heart, lungs and muscles, and exhaustion of these organs will lead to a predilection to disease. Conversely, the organs from which blood is taken may become deficient in nutrients and oxygen and may also be led to illness.
We all undergo periods of anxiety; it is part of existing and attempting to ‘better’ ourselves. We, as human beings, would not function or succeed if we were not pushed by catecholamine, Cortisol and other stressors. It is important, however, to differentiate between being under pressure and being stressed. Most successful individuals, whatever their field, will achieve because of pressure. This drive should be focused on the appropriate event and not be transferred elsewhere. An employee angry with their boss should not take it out on their partner, friends or children. This act of transference is the main indicator that the drive has moved from being pressure to being stress. The stress chemicals are in abundance and are telling the body, mind and soul that it is in trouble. Trouble rarely comes in small bursts, according to our evolutionary development, and therefore a problem at work is carried through to home. It is important to learn how to reduce stress chemical production and use up any excess chemicals in the bloodstream.
How to differentiate between pressure and stress is difficult. I think the answer may be simply to ask ‘am I happy?’ or ‘can I accept this particular situation?’. If the answer is ‘no’ to either, then you are under stress and not pressure. If stress is present, then you run the risk of any number of conditions and diseases. It is argued by those with a strong meditative or spiritual belief that all physical ailments, except those created by age , are caused by an excess of stress chemicals.
Be happy or at least at peace with the activities and emotions in your life. If you are not, sit with a counsellor and discuss the reasons.
Learn a relaxation or meditation technique regardless. These produce anti-stress chemicals that will either act as a treatment or as a preventative measure. Practising for a few minutes a day is better than nothing at all, although ideally l-2hr a day should be set aside for meditation.
Consider physical causes of stress by establishing the presence of food allergies through blood tests and by avoiding these stressors.
Ensure a healthy environment both at work and home. Avoid pollution and dirt and consider the effects of radiation .
Stress chemicals produce free radicals that are both damaging to cells and carcinogenic.
Take the following supplements if under stress or if the diet does not have five portions of fruit and vegetables each day: beta-carotene , vitamin C , vitamin E , selenium , coenzyme Q10 and pycnogenol ; maximum recommended dose on a good natural product.
Supplementation with the amino acid D,L-phenylalanine, 150mg per foot of height in divided doses throughout the day. If available, tryptophan can be taken at the same dosage but, due to an unsubstantiated fear following problems because of faulty manufacture, this amino acid is no longer available as a supplement without a doctor’s prescription. Tryptophan is available to non-vegetarians in meat, fish and turkey and to everyone through cottage cheese, milk, bananas, peanuts and lentils. Dried dates, interestingly, have a high proportion.
Specific homeopathic remedies and herbal and antioxidant treatments are available but most of those that can be bought off the shelf are the wrong potency or too low in concentration to be efficacious. Stressed individuals should be under the care of a complementary medical practitioner.
Ginseng and adrenal gland extracts may be selected off the shelves and taken at twice the daily recommended dose for one week and then reduced to the recommended levels according to the packaging if an effect has been noticed within the first seven days.
Exercise burns up stress chemicals. Overexercising, however, may stress the body further. Set an exercise programme within your capabilities and slowly but gently increase activity. One session with a gym master or personal fitness instructor will solve your problems.
Body work of any sort is beneficial. Human touch is soothing and produces chemicals that counteract stresses. Most practitioners are in the field because of a need or an ability to heal, and healing energy will counteract stresses.
Aromatherapy using lavender oils or other more specific extracts, depending upon the individual’s personality and stress, will act as a pheromone and stimulate relaxation chemicals.
Bach flower remedies chosen according to the symptoms of the individual will give benefit.
Sound therapy has been researched and whether it is simply listening to music or sitting in acoustic chairs, which pass a vibration through the system, relaxation chemicals are promoted to counteract stresses.
Massage with aromatherapy oils is particularly beneficial for relieving stress. The soothing effect of body work combines with the relaxing qualities of aromatherapy oils such as lavender.