End of year activities are now past and resolutions of the New Year are being re-evaluated by many whose motivation is flagging when challenged by the stresses of world events, daily reminders of political issues, and dramatic weather shifts reigniting discussions about what future generations will experience. Added to these concerns is the effect of collective past experiences. Much has been written about the long term effects of early childhood experiences on our thought, beliefs, and even functioning in adulthood. Perhaps one of the best known studies is the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study) conducted by Kaiser Permanente (Anda, n.d.) illuminating the impact negative early childhood experiences can have on health many years later. In addition to the physical and mental health medical diagnoses correlated with adverse childhood experiences is the effect long-term chronic stress can have on perceptions of feeling stuck, unfulfilled, and ineffective in managing life’s challenges. When this happens, anxiety and frustration may lead to experimentation with behaviors and strategies for relief (a/k/a coping behaviors) in an effort to adapt to the situation or, for some people, a return to old patterns of thinking about the causes of societal ills and injustices.
All coping behaviors are an effort to restore a sense of balance and they can be categorized as healthy or unhealthy. Unhealthy coping behaviors relieve stress and deliver relief by avoiding resolution of the problem allowing anxiety, anger, or fear to fester. Not resolving the ongoing stress consumes mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical resources eventually damaging organs and taxing the immune system. Conversely, healthy coping behaviors are part of a strategic plan designed to relieve stress so one can tolerate uncomfortable situations and feelings long enough to tackle the tasks of problem solving and implementing an appropriate plan of action. While a healthy coping skill may not provide complete and immediate relief, it does enhance health and well being. At best, an unhealthy coping mechanism allows the issue to remain unresolved only to arise again at some future time.
Stress and The Body
Stress invades our lives through many avenues. It may be your friend or a family member who delivered some well-meant but unsolicited advice that activates the stress hormones adrenalin (epinephrine), noradrenalin, and cortisol (APA, ND; Sadowski, Jackson, Wieczorek, & Gold, 2009). These hormones increase heart rate and blood pressure, redirect blood flow to large muscles needed for flight or fight via dilation of blood vessels, and affect breathing patterns so they become more shallow and short, among a host of other less noticeable effects such as the release of glucose by the liver to give the body energy for fight or flight. This blood sugar is reabsorbed once the crisis or stress is past and the body returns to its usual state of function. However, what might this mean for people who have diabetes or are at higher risk for diabetes? Think about what happens to eating patterns and diets when life begins to feel overwhelming. Those changes in eating habits may result in increased heartburn or one’s stomach may feel like a lump of lead, filled with butterflies, pain, nausea, or become so distressed one vomits. Some people experience diarrhea, constipation, or their body has difficulty absorbing and synthesizing nutrients from food (WebMD, ND). When cells are stressed they cease synthesizing proteins until the stress is relieved (Ramanujan, 2013). Men produce more testosterone when stressed and the increase in cortisol affects reproductive and sexual functioning leaving them vulnerable to infection, decreased sperm production, and even erectile dysfunction and impotence. In women, stress affects the menses and can cause painful menses, intensify PMS, decrease sexual desire, and intensify menopausal symptoms.
Stress can be acute, as when you have a near collision while driving, or chronic, such as what might be experienced living in a chaotic home environment. During acute stress, the body’s responses are quickly activated by the sympathetic nervous system and then the body tends to return to normal through the actions of the parasympathetic system. Chronic stress, however, prevents the body from quickly returning to baseline resulting in a lot of wear and tear on the body. In chronic stress there is a repeated rollercoaster effect of the nervous system being activated such that organs and tissues become inflamed and vulnerable to disease and dysfunction. When stress continues long enough, a condition called adrenal fatigue may result. All of these effects can increase the likelihood of returning to old unhealthy coping patterns (relapse) out of exhaustion, frustration, and perceived defeat. The type of stress experienced is irrelevant as the body responds via the same mechanisms with demands on your body’s physical and mental resources. Even good stress (eustress) comes at a price as the internal physical demands placed on systems and organs may go unrecognized. A good example of good stress is the planning a wedding or birth of a child.
Points to remember:
• All stress takes a toll on the body
• When stressed it is a natural tendency to change behavior patterns in an effort to gain some measure relief
• You are more vulnerable to returning to old comfort behaviors because of their history of providing relief
despite their ill effects
• Stress is a part of life
• There are healthy and effective things you can do to reduce symptoms
Stress begins in the sympathetic system of the brain and is felt in the body through the release of the hormone adrenalin. The parasympathetic system, part of the nervous system, is responsible for returning the body to its pre-stress state. This is something that occurs automatically. However, strategies such as breathing and muscle relaxation have been found helpful towards helping the parasympathetic system signal the brain to stop activating the release of stress hormones. Breathing deeply and rhythmically down into the lower abdomen creates a massaging effect on numerous organs and the vagus nerve, the major nerve traversing the body that carries sensory messages to the brain. The brain has come to associate shallow breathing with danger and normal rhythmic breathing with safety or normalcy. Relaxation breathing has the ability to reduce heart rate and to lower blood pressure.
Another stress buster is guided imagery, imagining a place that evokes feelings of calmness, security, and pleasure. The place chosen does not have to be real but can be a place you imagine or a real place altered to meet criteria. Guided imagery can be paired with relaxing music to enhance its effectiveness. Guided imagery and breathing are both effective skills and there are many other kinds of body work designed to deliver similar results, including yoga, massage, hot mineral spas, whirlpools, and meditation and prayer.
While body work is an effective means of reducing stress, the effectiveness of thought management cannot be underestimated. If repetitive thoughts go unmanaged and unchallenged, chances are pretty good the anxiety and physical signs of stress will return. Trying to empty the mind seems like a futile exercise because the brain naturally seeks another thought to fill the space. Interrupting negative thoughts can be achieved effectively by replacing the unhelpful thought with one that is more accurate and helpful or positive. Thought replacement is like changing the channel on the radio or television when you do not like the show or song playing. This is an important skill because thoughts have a direct effect on how a person feels, and is reflected by attitude and behavior.
How Thoughts Relate to Feelings and Stress
Thoughts are reflected in self-talk and arise from internal and external experiences. When self-talk is negative, it is characterized by shoulds, oughts, self-criticism, and judgments creating a self-defeating mindset. There are a number of common thinking errors habitually utilized and, when left unchecked, can cause difficulties in relationships. Recognizing, becoming mindful of, and then reframing these thinking errors accurately helps improve the quality of self-talk and feelings about self, others, and life.
Beliefs are closely tied to thoughts. A belief is a thought accepted as true even though there is no empirical evidence to support it. The basis of most beliefs is formed during childhood and is heavily influenced by parents and caregivers. In childhood the brain is not developed sufficiently to challenge or evaluate the statements made by adults. For the most part, those statements were accepted unquestioningly. Sometimes the information and interpretation of what was heard was accurate and sometimes it was partly or completely erroneous. Some beliefs from childhood resulted from thoughts formulated to get through a situation. Either way, the accepted belief whether true, partly true, or completely false influences feelings about self and environment and needs to be challenged and reframed if needed. This is a large part of the work of therapies like cognitive behavior therapy, rational emotive therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. Each of those therapies has a common construct that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interrelated. So, while feelings can be evoked by thoughts and memories through the release of neurochemicals and hormones and experienced as sadness, happiness, anger, disgust, worry, etc., those feelings are usually short lived unless extended by feeding them unhelpful thoughts.
Tools to Manage Feelings
Most people are aware moods and feelings can be influenced by exercises such as walking, running, and working out which increase endorphins and help elevate mood. Other techniques found helpful towards managing uncomfortable moods and feeling-states are distraction with music, play or creative hobbies, and comfort foods such as chocolate. Feelings and mood also can be influenced by talking with someone about what is happening, journaling about them, or by keeping a gratitude journal to help put the thoughts or situation into perspective and see it in context and perhaps from a different viewpoint. Pleasurable activities initiate a release of “feel good” neurochemicals such as dopamine. Unhealthy coping behaviors sometimes used for distraction and relief are alcohol, recreational and illicit drugs, and some types of behavior such as gambling and sex. These behaviors may also stimulate release of dopamine and provide a temporary state of pleasure. Unacknowledged and minimized or denied, feelings may intensify. By accepting feelings do not last forever it becomes permissible to experience the full scope of feelings without judgment or self-criticism which can reduce stress.
Stressful events are part of everyday life but they do not have to become the focus of one’s existence. There are effective, natural, nonpharmaceutical means by which daily stresses can be managed. Those tools involve breathing, muscle relaxation, and changing the nature of thoughts about self and the world through challenging personal perceptions and beliefs for accuracy.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Stress effects on the body. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body.aspx
Anda, R. (n.d.). The health and social impact of growing up with adverse childhood experiences: The human economic costs of the status quo. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Review_of_ACE_Study_with_references_summary_table_2_.pdf
Fulda, S., Gorman, A. M., Hori, O., & Samali, A. (2010). Cellular stress responses: Cell survival and cell death. International Journal of Cell Biology, 2010, 214074. http://doi.org/10.1155/2010/214074
WebMD. (n.d.). The effects of stress on your body: How does stress affect health? Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/effects-of-stress-on-your-body