Stress: Your Body Under Attack
Stress: Your Body Under Attack
Having trouble sleeping? Popping more antacids than usual? Or ma
ybe you've had more colds this winter. Maybe these symptoms are related to stress.
Just about everyone has experienced a pounding heart, tense muscles, and sweaty palmsthe body's evolutionary "fight or flight" response when facing a threat.
It's a well-known phenomenon that a certain amount of stress can sharpen your mental prowess, and new research suggests that brief exposures to certain stressors may enhance the body's immune response. However, responses designed by evolution to protect us from predators may sometimes be useful, says Richard Sloan, PhD, director of the Department of Behavioral Medicine at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York. They are counterproductive in many situations today.
Your Body Under Stress
When you experience stress, Sloan explains, your blood clots more readily so you bleed less, and blood flows to your muscles so you can fight back with strength. This would be very helpful if you were being attacked by a lion, he says, "but it's not useful when your boss yells at you." According to some studies, prolonged or frequent exposure to stressful events might increase our vulnerability to illnesses like depression, heart attacks, and the common cold.
Scientists are only just beginning to understand how this works, according to Firdaus Dhabhar, PhD, an assistant professor and neuroimmunologist at Ohio State University.
As he explains it, when our sensory organs encounter a potential threat, they transmit signals to the brain which, in turn, releases chemicals that stimulate nerves and glands throughout the body. In the adrenal glandswhich are located near the kidneysthe brain chemicals induce the secretion of the hormones corticosterone and epinephrine, which stimulate the organs to act in various ways.
The result is what Dhabhar calls "the typical stress response":
- The heart beats faster.
- The muscles tense.
- Sweat glands are activated.
- Blood flow is diverted from the intestines to other parts of the body.
- Immune cells move from the blood to other organs.
Ordinarily, Dhabhar says, within three hours following the threat, "Everything goes back to normal."
The Dangers of Chronic Stress
Under conditions of ongoing or repeated stresssuch as continual worry and anxiety, a bad work situation, or medical illnessthe body's "fight or flight" system gets "hammered," Dhabhar says. Constant stimulation might lead to overproduction of stress-related hormones and "the systems begin to break down." This, in time, could negatively affect the immune system.
According to Herbert Benson, MD, chief of the Division of Behavioral Medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, chronic stress can lead to the following:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiac arrhythmia
Chronic stress might also increase the risk of heart attacks and make premenstrual syndrome and hot flashes more severe. Recent research suggests that high levels of stress might speed up the progression of AIDS and multiple sclerosis, and hinder the effects of medication.
Repeated or constant exposure to stressors may also impair the brain's ability to evaluate whether a stress response is warranted and make it less able to regulate the response, according to a 1998 article in the New England Journal of Medicine by Bruce McEwen, PhD, of the Rockefeller Institute. This could be problematic at several levelsfrom the day-to-day management of average stressors to suddenly being faced with a situation that would normally call up the fight or flight response.
Recognizing There's a Problem
To begin with, it's important to recognize the presence of stress-induced symptoms. The signs may include the following:
- Excess anxiety
- Temper outbursts
- Unexplained anger or crying spells
- Nightmares or insomnia
- Personality changes
Reducing the Stress
Change your situation
Do what you can to change stressful conditions, Benson advises. If they involve a relationship or workplace situation, he says, "more often than not, this is difficult to do."
Learn to relax
Benson advocates invoking what he calls "the relaxation response". This well-known technique, based on the principles of transcendental meditation, involves repeating a word, sound, prayer or phrase or performing a repetitive muscular activity.
"When other thoughts come into your mind, let them go passively, and come back to repetition." According to Benson, who is the founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, these activities have been shown to quiet the brain and to decrease blood pressure, heart rate, and the rate of breathing.
Change your outlook
Sloan suggests learning relaxation techniques such as biofeedback, and what he terms "cognitive restructuring," a method that involves questioning whether the physiologic reaction you are experiencing is rationally justified.
"You may learn that your office is being moved and think 'that's the worst news I've had in years,'" he explains. By "reforming" the issue, you may decide it's not so badand your body will respond accordingly.
Practice remaining calm
Sloan also suggests rehearsing in advance how you will respond to a stressful situation. For example, if you need to deal with a difficult person, "figure out how you will address your concerns without yelling or provoking an angry attack and then practice these behaviors."
Others suggest developing a network of family and friends to avoid social isolation, and seeking professional counseling if needed.
Keep it simple
In Dhabhar's view, "Grandma's advice still stands." You should "eat good, wholesome food; exercise moderately and get enough sleep." This may seem "too simple," he says, but being in a state of healthy equilibrium helps you minimize the impact of stress and makes your body better able to fend off any immune challenges that arise.
American Institute of Stress
Mind/Body Medical Institute
Stress Management Briefs from the University of Minnesota
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