You are caught in a traffic jam. No big guess. You have an important meeting lined up. No real surprise. Welcome to the stress labyrinth — an inevitable part of our life and also existence.
Stress is nothing short of a frizzy ‘bottleneck.’ It has biological and physiological causes and psychological outcomes. It changes the way we perceive the world, our senses, memory, judgment and behaviour. Most of the biological changes that arrive with the stress response are designed to rally the body's fuel reserves — to convert them for immediate use. This includes providing extra oxygen required for the organs most likely to need it — the brain and muscles. Put simply, stress ‘acts’ as a sort of ‘go-between’ for one part of the nervous apparatus called the sympathetic nervous system, which deals with the body's ‘maintenance’ functions under normal conditions and for quickly re-adjusting our priorities.
Act 1. Scene 1. Your pulse, blood pressure and breathing rate increase — to help boost the supply of available energy. The heart, as you’d know, beats faster under stress and pumps a greater quantity of blood with each beat. Your bronchial tubes dilate to assist the passage for more air with each breath. The blood vessels supplying the muscles expand just as well. The palms of your hands and the soles of your feet begin to perspire, primarily because a damp surface provides a much better ‘grip’ of things. In like manner, the pupils of your eyes dilate to let in more light and improve your vision. What next? Your mental alertness and reaction time are speeded up.
Act 2. Scene 1. When things go far beyond one's control, the whole ‘upshot’ impacts the other part of the nervous system, the parasympathetic apparatus. It leads to involuntary urination — like rushing to the washroom — and, also passing stools. This isn’t all. During a stressful episode, long-term energy reserves, such as stored fat, are broken down into fatty acids and glycerol to be metabolised pronto. Carbohydrates, stored in the liver, are, likewise, mobilised and converted into glucose, as blood is shunted from the extremities towards the heart, muscles and brain.
Your peripheral blood vessels go into a tizzy — you develop ‘cold feet,’ a famed literary expression, in anticipation of an unpleasant event. This, in effect, leads to the shutting down of energy-consuming processes, including salivation. The result is a parched mouth, loss of appetite and troubled bowels. It is chaos, all right. Yet, stress, in its core, is evidenced to provide the boost to your general level of arousal and awareness — to make you more responsive to signals from your sensory organs and less receptive to information that is of no immediate consequence. For example, in times of severe stress, an itch or runny nose will not divert your attention.
When your brain decides — consciously or unconsciously — that all is not well, the hypothalamus is activated. The hypothalamus is the ‘seat’ of many electrical and chemical signals which trigger stress responses in our body. During the preliminary phase of a stress response the hypothalamus stimulates the nerve endings in the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands — this causes them to release the two hormones, noradrenaline and adrenaline. A slightly stressful activity, such as public speaking may, by and large, bring forth a 50 per cent surplus in noradrenaline. People having chronic stress, or anxiety, tend to have a much higher or persistently elevated levels of adrenaline and noradrenaline, not to speak of the stress chemical, cortisol.
If stress is a compass that lets us know any change in our normal routine or health, it also gives us the warning signal before ‘bad’ things happen. Similarly, it indicates good and happy tidings. Picture this. The anticipation of getting a raise or promotion is stressful; so also being ‘fired’ from the job. Just look around and you will know, because it is ‘factored’ that one out of ten people is over-stressed at any given point of time.
Stress is evidenced to be one of the contributing factors for loss of emotional equilibrium, backache, sleeplessness, or insomnia, eating disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome [CFS], absence of menstruation [amenorrhoea], abnormal bleeding, fibroid tumours and cancer. Heart disease and diabetes are also stress-related disorders. While some women experience changes in their sexuality and bump into various sexual dysfunctions such as loss of desire and vaginal dryness, because of stress, there are several others [men and women] who often feel the rebounding effects of stress — these include headaches and migraines, anxiety, depression and sleep loss, aside from lack of libido and fertility problems. Stress can trigger gastrointestinal disorders, including ulcers, lower abdominal cramps, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome [IBS]. What’s more, it is not uncommon for people with severe stress to be subject to frequent colds, infections, or allergies, thanks to reduced immune system reaction time, or function. As a matter of fact, stress can set off certain skin problems, such as itching and rashes, as well as atopic dermatitis [eczema] and psoriasis.
Not all stresses are stressful or negative. If one deals with stress effectively, it can work and help us to reach our goals more quickly. You’d call this ‘good’ stress, or ‘eustress’ — it motivates and propels us to do well in life. Eustress can be defined as pleasant or therapeutic stress. We can't always avoid stress. In fact, sometimes we don't want to. It is such ‘controlled’ stress that gives us our competitive edge in performance-related activities like sports, giving a speech, or acting. For example, if you are going through a job interview, you will ‘profit’ from a certain amount of stress. It is such ‘motivating’ stress that provides us with the sharp focus and ‘pumps’ us up with that ‘competitive edge,’ stirring us to think quickly, clearly and also express our thoughts in ways that could ‘jazz-up’ the entire interview process.
In a study, a team of scientists found that our genetic make-up may be ‘rewired,’ courtesy of stress. The study researchers found that a complex network of 160,000 genetic interactions in yeast cells, to cull an example, changed when subjected to stress. They also figured out that ‘rewiring’ was widespread. As a matter of fact, 70 per cent of the genetic interactions that happened when cells were under stress did not occur in normal cells. This could be a novel paradigm to ‘swot’ not only biological responses to stress, but also apply them to evaluating how cells deal with stress, illness and medical treatment. This is not all. The information exchange could shed new light on how cells actually work under stress.
Other studies have found that certain genes can predispose some people to produce lower levels of the brain molecule, neuropeptide-Y [NPY]. Such individuals are evidenced to be more receptive to negative — not positive — stimuli in key brain circuits related to emotion. They are, therefore, suggested to be less defiant in the face of stress and/or be at a higher risk of depression, the common cold of psychiatric illness. Researchers envision that this understanding will eventually facilitate in the early diagnosis of emotional and other illnesses, leading to newer ‘customised’ or ‘tailored’ therapies to suit individual needs, based on one’s genetic profile.
While a host of clinical studies have shown that NPY helps to restore calm after stressful storms, or events, research has also made significant strides in analysing how relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga — aside from ta’i chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery and qi gong — improve emotional wellness by changing certain patterns of gene activity that affect how our body responds to stress. As mind-body pioneer Herbert Benson, MD, explains, “It's not all in your head. What we have found is that when you evoke the relaxation response, the same genes that are ‘turned-on’ or ‘turned-off’ by stress are ‘wiggled’ just the other way.”