The Dangers of Chronic Stress and Some Things That You Can Do About It

 The normal evolved stress response in humans was a life saver.  Imagine being an early human in the jungles, or on the African Savannah, and having to deal with large predators like lions, hyenas, and the like.  Humans are slow and have nothing in the way of natural defensive or offensive capabilities.  It is only our ability to think, fashion tools and weapons, and ban together into social groupings like the extended family unit called a tribe which allowed us to advance to the top of the food chain on this planet.  What is amazing is that individually any one of us is just as helpless against a lion as was our distant tribal forefathers.  Without our tools, weapons, and protection given by being in groups, we are once again on the menu.

The stress response is essentially the fight or flight response.  You either stand and fight, or you flee for your life.  All sorts of physical things happen to prepare us to fight or flee.  The heart starts pumping faster and your blood pressure rises in order to get the blood to your muscles and your lungs.  Digestion slows down since there is no time to eat when you are preparing to fight or flee.  Breathing rate increases in order to get more oxygen into the blood.  Blood supply is directed towards your brain and the muscles responsible for structure and movement, since you will have to either fight for your life or run for your life.  Blood clotting factor rises since there might need to be a repair to an injury.  Your eye pupils will dilate in order to gather more light for vision, since sight is important to see your foe, especially if this is happening nocturnally.  Your liver creates glucose as a quick energy source along with fatty acids since if you are fighting or fleeing you will need some quick and also sustainable energy.

All of this was once designed to save your life, and it would only kick in when you really needed it.  Let’s fast forward to the modern age.  Most of us no longer have to worry about that hairy teeth monster lurking in the bushes ready to make a meal of us, but we, on another level, perceive all sorts of threatening things in the form of that nasty boos, backstabbing coworkers, nagging spouse, looming pink slip, phone calling creditors, etc.  We are still under siege, and when you feel that way the stress response kicks in.  When we are constantly bombarded with these things and they never end, many of us develop the condition of chronic stress.  Stress becomes this chronic never ending condition which dogs us day and night, day in and day out, month after month, and then year after year.  In today’s world much of this revolves around money and the lack of it, but even people with money aren’t safe because many of them are always worried about making more or are fearful of losing what they have, so the chronic stress train keeps choo choo’ing along.  Now the tables have turned on us and for the most part, in the modern world, the things that trigger the stress response are not worthy of it because they are not life or death situations.  The problem is that the body has this mechanism burned in and the response itself, over time, becomes the problem.  Many of the physical manifestations of the stress response, when triggered constantly and chronically, actually break out bodies down over time.  Some of the problems are higher blood pressure, headaches, muscle aches and spasms, digestive problems, chronic gastrointestinal issues like IBS, clogging of the arteries due to arterial wall damage from the higher blood pressure, to name a few.  

You have to condition yourself on how to handle stress.  Not everyone has a runaway fight or flight syndrome.  This is because different people handle their stresses differently.  If you are the type to brood about things, think negatively, or somehow internalize everything that you perceive in your life as going wrong or being a struggle, then you are the type who is more likely suffering from the “broken” stress response.  Many times all it takes is a shift in your thinking to shift your response.  For example, if you have an internal conversation with yourself telling yourself how much you can’t stand sitting in traffic, or waiting for your turn at the grocery store checkout, then your body will shift more readily into a stress response.  You will tense up and maybe start sweating, which will in turn make you feel self conscious about the sweating and make you paranoid about people looking at you or noticing perspiration stains on your underarms or elsewhere on your clothing, which will then spiral downward into more worry and impatience.  In extreme cases this can lead to a full fledged panic attack.  Some people, even though they are just standing there on a line, will exhibit the physical signs of an all out sprint from a predator.  They will have the increased heart rate and all of the signs of the fight or flight response.  There are people who can go through this several times a day, every day.  It doesn’t just start that way either.  You might start this behavior out as a youngster, having it get progressively worse through the years.  For some people this is the long sad path towards things like nervous breakdown or Heaven forbid thoughts of worthlessness or even suicide.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  A simple shift in your thinking and some minor preparation can lead you out of this behavior pattern.  The first thing to realize if you are going to try to improve matters is to realize and accept that it is a process and that you may not get it right the first time or even the first several times.  Know that it is a process and that you will get better over time, and DO NOT beat yourself up if you perceive that you failed in some aspect, because that in itself leads to stress, which you want to avoid because that is the whole purpose here.  What I can offer here is to get yourself used to some minor preparation.  If you are headed to the doctor’s office, for example, you might enjoy the many magazines that are in the waiting room.  If so then great, pick one up and occupy your mind instead of watching the clock and getting aggravated at all of the people who are going in first, especially the ones who came into the office after you.  If you do not like the magazines, then some forethought in bringing your own magazine or book that you are interested in might have served you well.  Today we have all sorts of personal diversions, like mobile phones that are also computers with built in games, personal music players, etc.  Whatever it takes to get you away from brooding behavior or self destructive thoughts, then do it.  With time this will become second nature to you and you won’t even have to think about it.  This can be more of a challenge for men because we do not carry around purses or handbags to store stuff in, but most of us today have mobile electronic devices which can act as handy diversions in times of need.  It’s also your thoughts.  For example, try to train yourself to not think negatively about everything, or to succumb to paranoid thoughts that the world is against you.  Cynicism is at an all time high, and it has become fashionable, even for young adults and even children, to adopt this cynical, sarcastic, fatalistic, and super skeptical attitude about everything.  These things have been piped into the homes through the many new kids TV networks which are most likely staffed by similarly pessimistic and cynically filled twenty and thirty somethings.  As a parent I have noticed these attitudes in many of these special kids programming which did not exist when I was a child.  I still ended up all stressed out, so I can;t help but wonder what will become of the current crop of kids when they get old enough to face real stresses.  i.e. How will they respond to their stresses?  If it is with negative paranoia and a fatalistic blame everyone else attitude which is prevalent in modern society, then the broken fight or flight response is something that we will be trying to work around for a long time to come.  That was not a pessimistic thought on my part, it is just calling it as I see it.  When you succumb to negative thinking or allow even a small mishap to change your entire mood, this will be with you through the entire day.  Be aware of your reactions to things and if you react in the wrong way and realize it, don’t get down on yourself.  Just be resolved to react differently the next time.  Before long you will be out of the habit of being negative and angry all of the time and into the new beneficial habit of having a positive outlook.  All of this is tied to stress response and you your body reacts.  It all starts in your mind.  Mind over matter was never truer than when dealing with your reaction to stressful situations.  

Another thing that you can do to put yourself into a better mood is to get into the habit of making some time to do things that you enjoy, or other mood enhancing things.  When you are feeling angry or down, think of a baby or child that you love, or of the last thing that your pet did which made you laugh.  Listen to some enjoyable music or a favorite motivational speaker.  Make sure that you always have a favorite book to read or that your mobile phone device has enjoyable games and diversions loaded on it.  Be sure that your car has the music or other listening material for when you are stuck in traffic.  These are little things that you can do but they add up to many times when you would normally be stressed out but no longer are because you are not focused on the stress but on something enjoyable.

We make the choice to be happy or sad, angry or elated.  Too many of us succumb to the pity party and the “woeways me” outlook.  I have done this plenty of times.  How do you think that this became one of my interests which I chose to write about?  No one is perfect and we all slip and slide.  I do know enough to realize my faults and the shifts that need to be made.  I know for a fact that the shift in thinking and reacting does work because it has worked for me on numerous occasions.  I still am hit by many daily stresses and I adjust as I go along.  It is a process and you have to be strong and focused on your goal of being happy.  Sounds like a lot of work, right?  Well, there is work involved but it is worth it and the goal is to turn this work into a habit that you do unconsciously with little or no thought.

Sadness does come and you have to deal with it.  Aside from chronic stress, let me say something about genuine sadness.  Whether it be from the death of a loved one or some other tragedy like divorce or something traumatic.  It is okay to be upset and to cry.  Let it out.  Don’t hold it in.  Converse with willing friends, and if you don’t have them then contact a therapist or look online for a support group.  There is no excuse in this “wired” day and age to suffer alone and without support.  I can say from experience that I credit my ability to get beyond mourning some sort of a loss with ability to let it all out for a few hours or days and then the faculties return and clear thinking prevails.  I know that everyone is different, but the support of sympathetic souls and the ability to let it all out can do wonders for your comeback powers.

Another wonderful resource to reduce stress and immediately reduce the stress or “fight or flight” response is meditation with breathing exercises.  This method has been scientifically and medically proven to work for reducing stress and even for reducing high blood pressure.  I plan to write another article about this, but let me say here that being alone in a room and focusing on breathing slowly in and out, and reducing your breathing rate over the course of 20 minutes every day (the effect is cumulative) can result in a much less stressful lifestyle.  There are products out there which combine the breathing cues with relaxing music and I highly recommend them.

Hopefully the more people who are made aware of the connection to the very real historical and physiological stress response and its link to modern life and our response to it, we can prevent future generations from going down the self destructive path of anxiety, depression, sickness, or worse.  Remember this, massive change starts with one small change that is compounded over time by repetition.  If you condition your thinking to change and make the effort to think positively and not internalize daily problems, you will be doing yourself a huge favor and maybe you will even increase your lifespan.

Source by Tom Connelly

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