I recently read a great book about stress. How cheerful, you might say. Well, I did it for you, my dear reader. I did, in fact, begin my reading with altruistic motives, wishing to share with you the way stress affects the body and teach you how to manage stress to minimize its negative impact in your life.
Little did I know how much I needed the info myself!
Life is sneaky that way, isn’t it? Here I stand, at this beginning of the school year, full of hope and healthy resolutions. The book I read is called The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress, by Dr. Archibald Hart (Thomas Nelson, 1995). Although it’s not the most recent book on stress, it’s an easy-to-read, inspiring book nonetheless. I’ll share some highlights with you in three parts. In Part 1 I’ll describe the most important insights I gleaned about how our bodies mobilize to meet a challenge. In Part 2 I’ll describe healthy ways to manage stress. Part 3 is a guest post by one of my clients, Dr. Angel Duncan, who will share a relaxation exercise with you.
- The stress response: The amazing human body is hard-wired with the ability to respond to threats with a complex and efficient system of mobilization. You’ve heard of “fight or flight” I’m sure. Behind this catchy phrase is a whole host of chemical reactions that occur when we are faced with a major challenge:
- Your eyes dilate, the rate and force of your heart’s contractions increase, and your blood vessels constrict, so your blood pressure rises. Blood is borrowed from the intestinal reservoir and shunted to your major muscles, lungs, heart, and brain, preparing you for battle. Bowel and bladder function shut down temporarily, conserving energy needed to power your muscles, whether you choose to stay and fight or run away. (This efficient summary is from The Wisdom of Menopause by Christiane Northrup, M.D., Bantam Books 2003 p.59.)
- Here’s a family example: one time my older brother was working on his motorcycle in the garage. It suddenly caught on fire. My brother lifted the motorcycle up and threw it 10 feet out of the garage where he was able to put out the fire safely. This response demonstrated quick decision-making & abnormal strength, 2 hallmarks of an adrenaline response.
- This system kicks in whether the challenge we face is life-threatening or simply our morning commute! To face our daily challenges, we really don’t need all that, especially the increased blood pressure, wouldn’t you agree?! Dr. Hart describes our activation this way:
“We are mobilized to act. We become physically stronger (which can be dangerous if we are angry) and mentally sharper. Notice I said ‘sharper,’ not ‘more creative or innovative.’” (Hart, p. 66)
I don’t know about you, but most of my challenges could use a greater measure of creativity and less blood pressure. I don’t particularly gain anything when I yell at my kid to hurry up and fall asleep already!
- The stress response has 3 important steps: alarm, activation, and RECOVERY. In our culture, this third step is often overlooked. I’ll discuss the importance of recovery in Part 2.
- Humans are incredibly ADAPTABLE. For example, our eyes can adapt from bright outdoor sunshine to dim indoor lighting within a minute or two. Unfortunately, we can also adapt to conditions we shouldn’t adapt to, like high levels of stress. Our adrenaline response has some great short-term features, like a decreased sensation of pain for example. This serves the purpose of helping us continue with a challenge even when we are injured. Imagine the need to carry your child down a mountain after some catastrophe, perhaps a task that would be physically impossible for you unless you knew you were in a life-threatening emergency.
- The long-term effects of adrenaline on the body are ultimately destructive. Here are a few examples: higher blood pressure, depleted endorphins and therefore an increased sensation of pain, quicker (and less discriminating) activation of a stress response, depletion of the brain’s natural tranquilizers and therefore increased anxiety. The list goes on, but you can see it’s a picture of diminishing returns.
As I said, refreshing my knowledge of how the body acts under stress has been great for me personally. The summer was in some ways a little more relaxed, but also a little stressful trying to balance work and family time. I was looking forward to the school year beginning in a grass-is-greener kind of way. Then I remembered that there’s a lot of hustling hither and thither with the kiddo, part of life I find stress-inducing. Learning to monitor and manage my stress response, which I’ll share with you in the next post, was a great way for me to start the school year. Stay tuned!
And, please, if you have any great stories about how your adrenaline helped you in a real crisis or hindered you in a daily challenge, please share with everyone in the comments below.