Stress and anxiety
Each day we wake up expecting things to go a certain way. Life however, rarely goes as planned. We’re either flexible to changes that arise or these surprises lead to some sort of level of anxiety and stress. Stress can also come about whenever we’re dealing with important projects or situations that require extra attention and focus.
Often times when we think of feeling stressed, we associate it with large, impactful episodes such as losing employment, going through a divorce or losing a loved one. Stressful occurrences however, happen each and every day. By definition stress occurs whenever we feel any measure of strain or pressure. The key word in that definition is “any.” It doesn’t matter how small or large that pressure or strain may be – as long as there is some level of it, stress will be present. Anyone that has children knows the strain that arises when a child becomes fussy. Students know the pressure that comes when it’s time to work on a project. Children feel stress when they’re learning how to express their emotions. Even babies are under duress when they’re learning how to put themselves to sleep.
Stress in and of itself is a useful mechanism. When used properly, stress affords us the ability to learn and become wiser people. It equips us with experience so that we can help ourselves and others in the future. Stress provides us the ability to find resolutions to problems, many times bringing out the best in us. For instance, when a college student anticipates a test, the stress they feel can help them resolve how they will plan their week and how often they will plan on studying in order to obtain the grade they want to achieve. As they work towards their goal, they become aware and learn about the time required in order to get the grade they desire. This allows them to become more proficient in how they study in the future. This also helps them develop certain attributes and skill sets that they’ll be able to take with them into the workforce or even in their personal lives.
While many of us may think of stress as something that only affects our minds, nothing could be further from the truth. The mind and body are incredibly connected. Every thought we have affects our body. There are a number of clinical studies that show how we think has a direct link with our health. No thought ever goes without consequence – including ones that are never spoken out loud. That’s because the brain is the epicenter for everything that happens to our bodies. The brain processes the activity of all the 60 trillion cells that make up our body. It uses this information to monitor, regulate and maintain balance and order in the entire body. By using all of the information that comes from the tissues and cells, neuron cells in the brain make calculations of needed chemical mixes or blocks the production of certain chemicals. This data is also used to make adjustments to energy and nutrient distribution – all contingent on the information that it receives from the rest of the body. This information is communicated through messengers that travel through the nerves and hormones that work to turn mechanisms on and off. Every day the brain activates hundreds of thousands of switches without any conscious effort on our part. Stress is one of those mechanisms that activates on its own whenever we perceive any level of potential threat or harm.
Keep in mind that threat or harm refers to much more beyond physical danger. It refers to any obstacle that potentially jeopardizes something that we see as important. That can be our job, finances, or even how we expect dinner should go when we’re with our families. Also keep in mind that threat and danger is subjective, meaning that it is based the perceptions, paradigms and thoughts that we’ve internalized. Stress has much more to do with our perceptions of a situation than it has to do with the actual event itself. That’s why what stresses out one person, doesn’t necessarily stress out another. Even when people do feel stress, the level of stress two people can feel for the exact same situation can vary significantly.
Once the brain activates the stress mechanism, a number of physiological changes take place. The brain sends signals to specific glands that are located right above the kidneys. These glands, known as adrenal glands, begin to produce two very potent hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. Hormones are powerful messengers that cause the body to act in specific ways. Adrenaline and cortisol causes increased amounts of energy to be distributed to the muscles and brain. This is an interesting phenomenon because it provides the muscles and brain a supercharged dose of strength for them to accomplish tasks extremely quickly. With this additional energy, specialized cells in the brain known as neurons go on alert and ignite electromagnetically to recall memories and knowledge at lightening quick speeds. This is done so that the brain can present a logical solution to the problem at hand as quickly as possible.
It’s incredible to think how this process works in order to survive. Just think of it – if you were walking down the street and all of a car started coming towards you, you wouldn’t have the time to begin thinking at a conscious level what you should do to save your life. There simply isn’t enough time. Since you perceive the danger in front of you, stress is activated and the brain quickly sifts through every piece of knowledge it has ever collected to calculate angles, shapes, dimensions, patterns, speeds, and anything else that it can recall to quickly put a solution in place so that you can move out of the way to avoid an accident.
We’ve already mentioned that the brain receives extra energy in order to provide solutions in stressful situations. Energy however, doesn’t appear from nothing. In order for extra energy to reach the brain and muscles, other systems donate some of the energy they typically use. Three systems in particular donate quite a fair share of this energy – the immune system, the endocrine (hormonal) system and the digestive system. Since stress is meant to be a temporary response in moments of crisis or learning, this redistribution of energy has no real secondary side effects. Going back to the example of a car approaching you, we’re really only talking about a brief moment. Once the accident has been avoided, and you feel safe, that event is reconciled as you know that you can continue on with your day without the threat of a car hitting you. The brain, going off of your perception that everything is fine now, will then deactivate the stress mechanism and our physiological balance and distribution of energy goes back to normal.
Problems occur when stressful events are not reconciled. In these situations the stress lasts for prolonged, consistent periods of time, this unequal distribution of energy creates damage in a number of ways and leads to the development of chronic disease. The specific chronic disease and the length of time it takes for them to develop vary from person to person. Factors can include activity level and how healthy a person’s diet is among others. Sooner or later however, no matter how well conditioned a person is physically, the physiological and biochemical changes that stress creates always produces unhealthy outcomes. With the exception of genetic disorders, prolonged levels of stress are responsible for 98% of all disease. Having prolonged levels of stress is known as chronic stress.
So how does chronic stress develop? Like anything else in life it happens little by little. It’s been my experience that most people are under chronic stress, yet aren’t aware of it until they become aware of what stress is and how it works. We wrote a blog once on typical manifestations of chronic stress that may be useful to read. As far as how chronic stress develops here’s a great example that parents can relate to: a child spilling their drink. I like this example because it’s one of the most common incidents that happen in a home and helps illustrate how chronic stress can build from a small event. While we probably don’t think of a spilled drink as something that can cause enormous amounts of stress, if not handled properly it can.
Let’s walk through the process. When a child spills a drink, many times we often experience an initial negative feeling such as annoyance or irritation. What we do at that point, makes all the difference in how we feel. The brain, picking up on the perception of something impeding the activities of our day activates the stress mechanism. Our neurons go on alert, looking for a resolution to the problem. If we are in a healthy state of mind, the brain will provide a file that helps us feel empathy for our child. It will remind us that this was a mistake, that we’ve all made similar mistakes and that we’ll likely see this again sometime. It will also help us understand that the best way to resolve the problem is to let go of the irritation and serve our child by showing them how to clean up the mess. The event is reconciled in your mind, the stress mechanism is deactivated and you’re able to resolve the problem without yelling, arguing, or going through unnecessary quarreling with your child.
Now let’s say this same situation occurred, but instead of going through the process in our minds of reconciling the event, we allow our emotions to dictate our actions. Perhaps we show our child an unhappy face and put our hands on our hips. Maybe we yell. Or maybe we even just show a calm face, but inside we feel like screaming. Either way, the event is never reconciled. Instead we’ve activated the stress mechanism and now neurons are firing off looking for memories or events that are similar to what you just experienced. This creates an invitation to allow false perceptions to be created in our mind regarding our child. Maybe we begin to think of them as clumsy. We begin to find more things that they do annoying like when they say they’re hungry or that they don’t want to go to sleep. Instead of looking for a solution to the problem at hand, the only memory that begins take hold in our minds is how annoying or irritating our kids are. As we reinforce these perceptions in our minds, the amount of neurons that become active continue to increase and it becomes harder to find a real resolution to any problem we may confront with our children in the future.
This situation deals with just one event. Unless resolved, how do you think this can potentially affect a perception a parent has regarding their small child? How often do we as parents get annoyed at our children for things that are no more than simple accidents on their part as they’re learning? What kind of affect does that have on the relationship as they grown into adolescence and into adulthood? Think of all the events that can come over the course of a day, a week or a year. This is how chronic stress develops and builds over the years while at the same time continuing to weaken the immune, digestive and endocrine systems.
Again, stress in and of itself is not a bad thing. It can be a tremendous help. The problem occurs when we don’t manage it correctly and resolve them in a way that provides both closure and learning. I’ve already mentioned how most of us suffer from chronic stress. If each of us takes a deep look inside we’ll find that there are plenty of things that we probably haven’t truly reconciled and let go. These events may be within our family, our spouses or in the workplace.
Apart from the physical toll that chronic stress creates, it also damages our minds as it provides an open door for false perceptions and lies to enter our mind. This changes the circuitry in our brains and makes us more susceptible to negative emotions such as fear, sadness, depression and other feelings that inhibit our ability to feel happy. This of course leads to additional stress, more physical and mental damage and a perpetual cycle that can be difficult to break.
Phytotherapi has developed programs and protocols to help people become aware of and remove chronic stress from their lives. This provides the ability to resolve and reconcile events that we may have forgotten about or that we’ve pushed to the side for whatever reason. We’ve seen a number of people reverse chronic illnesses through addressing the mental and emotional components of their health in addition to the physical aspects. Through removing chronic stress the mind can heal itself and restore proper circuitry, allowing the mind the ability to sift through false perception and truth. In addition to a healthier body, a healthy mind is important for anybody that wants to feel a genuine sense of happiness.