Just What is Stress, Anyway?

Estimates vary, but somewhere between 75 and 90% of all visits to primary care physicians in America are due to stress-related conditions. Stress has been implicated as a factor in stroke, heart attack, heart disease, and a host of other problems.

Even so, the “experts” have no clear, agreed-upon definition of stress. That’s because stress is a highly personal thing. Some people can take more of it than others; some people even seem to thrive on it! And stress is important in our lives, not only as a signal of possible impending danger but also because it’s stress that provides excitement and joy in living. There is bad stress (distress) and there is good stress (eustress). So  you don’t want to  rid yourself of stress – you want to manage it.

Physiologically we react to stress the same way whether the stress is good or bad, major or minor, real or imagined. The brain calls for the immediate release of adrenaline and other hormones. Adrenaline affects all the body’s systems: heart rate increases; blood pressure increases; blood sugar and cholesterol levels rise; muscles tense; digestion stops as blood is shunted to the muscles; hearing and sight become more acute; blood thickens so that healing, if needed, can occur faster. This is the “fight-or-flight” response and it has existed since prehistoric man had to deal with life-or-death situations. Our circumstances have evolved (when was the last time you faced-down a sabre-tooth tiger?) but our stress response has not.

Each of us needs to look at his own circumstances and determine where the stress comes from in our lives. Major stress situations are easily recognized and usually dealt with fairly well. Dealing with major stress situations generally uses up all the stress chemicals our body has released. Then we rest and restore ourselves. However, lifestyles today subject us to an almost-constant stream of smaller stresses. These are more hassles than problems. We adapt so well to these that we hardly notice them.

But with small stresses occurring almost constantly, our bodies are always releasing stress chemicals and we don’t get the opportunity to rest and restore. Eventually, this chronic stress-state takes its toll. The stress response uses up exactly those nutrients that the immune system needs for proper functioning (especially the B-complex vitamins; vitamins A, C and E; magnesium; selenium; zinc; and essential  fatty acids). An impaired immune system can lead to many health problems.

Stress comes at us from all directions; there are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, nutritional and environmental sources of stress. As a result, there are many means of dealing with stress: learn proper breathing techniques; develop your relaxation skills; learn to manage your time effectively; adjust your environment; and prepare your body and mind to deal with stress.

It is the purpose of this blog to explore the sources, effects, and management of stress.

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