- by Dr. Liz Hale
Have you noticed the mixed messages in the media about stress?
A national news magazine recently put an eye-catching title on their cover, “Stress Can Be Good for You.” How is it after years of warnings about the damage stress can do to your heart, your immune system and your psyche, we are now hearing that stress can be good for you? Dr. Liz Hale, our own Clinical Psychologist says, don’t believe everything you read.
Stress is indeed hard on everything just mentioned – it’s also likely hard on the brain. New research in animals reveals stress can shrink brain tissue and make our neurons less effective at communicating with each other. Scientists are also investigating the genetic link with stress. How genes may affect the way our brains process stress and depression and how stress effects pregnancy.
Q: What is the stress mechanism exactlyÃ¢â?¬Â¦how does it all occur and what exactly happens to our body and mind?
Here is a list for you to use: Might be impressive to have it scroll thru while I mention only a few specificallyÃ¢â?¬Â¦..?
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Blood vessel constriction
- Heart rhythm disturbances
- Increased stomach acid
- Increased muscle tension
- Increased cholesterol
- Increased blood sugar
- Short shallow breathing
- Abnormality in immune function
- Fluid retention
- Anger, rage or hostility
- Decreased concentration
You see something, hear something, or experience something your brain considers to be stressful; the stress reactors in the brain are activated, causing an increase of several hormones in the blood. It’s the elevation of these hormones that produce all the negative mental and physical health effects we associate with stress. When hormones become elevated they cause depression because they affect the integrity of certain brain cells. They elevate blood pressure; they increase how rapidly cholesterol accumulates in the blood vessels of the heart; and they change the way our immune system works, increasing our susceptibility to infection. If someone has diabetes the hormones will make management of diabetes more difficult because the hormones convert fat to sugar and make the regulation of glucose more difficult. Stress affects every organ in your body.
The third thing that stress hormones will do to the brain is damage cells in an area of the brain involved with memory. Stress interferes with metal flexibility. The hormones will not allow proper connections between the brain cells. If you have a deadline and you have 4 weeks to do it, when will you start? Most of us wait until right before the deadline. The reason is that a slight elevation of the stress hormones does increase our ability to think. But it is such a small window ~ once we’re above that elevation then we can’t think clearly, we can’t focus and that’s why we never say to people, “Stress is good for you.” We never say, “go out and get some stress, it will help you.”
When we learn to cope with stress, we use behaviors and techniques that reduce the reactivity and assist our brains with the stress response. Stress is not good. Stress is not going away. But when we can keep these concentrations of these hormones lower we will have a better quality of mental and physical health. The brain can regenerate new brain cells and damaged cells can be repaired. If we can get the concentration of stress hormones down, depression will go away. It may take a couple of weeks but anti-depressants take about that long, as well.
Q: It seems sometimes we have this sick association with stress and success?
Stress can become addictive. We become competitive. It’s become a sign of success; “I must be more successful than everyone around me because I have the most stress!” Stress is OK for short period of times but we must find ways and engage in behaviors that calm us to reduce the concentration of hormone levels.
Challenges are opportunities. Stress can be a powerful catalyst for change. A client once said their heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to them “That’s what it took to get my attention to do the things that have made my life so much more. It made my life so much more joyful and meaningful ~ I may not have seen these benefits otherwise.”
Q: What can we do to survive the inevitable?
Three-Step Stress Reducer:
1) Increase the amount of oxygen in our blood.
Deep breathing is calming and relaxing. When the brain detects more oxygen in our blood, it shuts off the increased concentration of the stress hormones.
2) Use humor to decrease harmful hormones.
Create an imaginary box in your mindÃ¢â?¬Â¦put things in this box that make you laugh, such as a funny family story, something that reminds you that life is too short to take this seriously, etc. Now and then, pull from your imaginary box to slow you down and calm your mind.
3) Repeat a simple chant.
“All will be well. Things are good. I am loved.” Say the chant over and over to yourself when things are good; when you are happy. That way you set up a conditioned response just like Pavlov did with the dogs. Train your mind to associate that chant with being calm. Now, when you experience an acute stress all you have to do is think of the chant and your brain will shut off the production of the stress hormones and allow you to relax.
Q: Not easy to remember to do this when you’re in the moment of being stressed out? Because we can’t think clearly.
We need to teach these to our family, co-workers, friends Ã¢â?¬Â¦so that when they see that we’re upset, they can remind us to take a deep breath, or laugh or chant and we can do the same for them. Sticky notes can be helpful reminders. When I have a big event or something that taxes me more than usual, you’ll often find on my bathroom mirror, “Liz, just how serious is this?”Become a healthy life-style role model.
If you practice some kind of stress management techniques, it will have the effect of making your fuse longer. The threshold for what bothers you goes up. Eventually, mild stressors will no longer activate the stress reactive areas of the brain.
Mechanisms cause improvements much more quickly than we once thought. They are dynamic. We can alter our genes and increase our fuse to better tolerate stress.
Your brain can get measurably larger. We can increase an inner sense of peace, joy and well-being. We do not get our well-being or happiness form outside ourselves. We can enjoy the world and accomplish more IF we can learn to manage the toxicity of stress.
Q: You say meditation is powerful enough to even assist with fertility?
Fertility:Ã?Â Studies show that meditation can increase fertility. Conceiving requires a complex interaction of many different hormones in your body; stress can throw-off appropriate levels. Fallopian tubes are lined with smooth muscles similar to the arteries in your heart. They can constrict or dilate; under stress they constrict. The egg may not be able to get into the uterus because it can’t get through the constriction of fallopian tubes.
Q: How does diet play a role?
Diet:Ã?Â What we eat contributes to stress. Over Ã?Â½ million people were studied and it was determined that red meat and processed meat were associated with cancer and heart disease mortality. Caffeine can also make our fuse shorter. One of the easiest ways to reduce stress is to reduce caffeine in the diet. Eating well, physical activity, socially interactive; use more of these behaviors to increase the quality of mental and physical health.
Q: Even religion is good?
Religious or Spiritual Activity:Ã?Â Behaviors associated with spirituality have an amazing effect on stress; prayer, worship, altruism, compassion, relationships, forgivenessÃ¢â?¬Â¦these are antidotes to stress that frees us from our suffering, anger and depression.
Q: What can we teach our kids?
Meditation at School:Ã?Â Certain educational systems, like in Detroit, are implementing meditation as part of the school day. Brief meditation, brief breathing exercises help children calm down and function better at school; attendance is better and behavior is improved. Kids really take to meditation; it can not only help them manage stress better, but it helps them enjoy their life more and get better acquainted with how to increase inner peace. Be a good role-model form managing stress well. Your children will do what they see.