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The problem with stress…part 1

November 15, 2011

Stress.  Everybody talks about it.  People dealing with a chronic illness or condition are often told to manage their stress.  Of course, like most things, it’s easier said than done.

The definition of stress is complicated.  There is a good discussion of nuances in the definition at the American Institute of Stress website.  Basically, it comes down to this.  Any stimulus which causes certain responses in the body associated with “fight or flight”, either good or bad, can be considered stress.  In colloquial usage, people use the word stress to describe things that produce this response and the way one feels when under physical, mental, or emotional strain.

I read a transcript of  a podcast from  Scientific American a few days ago about a study published in Ecology, the journal of the Ecological Society of America.  Dragonfly larvae placed in a tank where they were able to see and smell predators (fish looking for a tasty snack), yet protected by a cage, had a higher death rate than other larvae living in a tank without the predators.  It was a poignant reminder of the demands stress places on our bodies.

Humans in day to day life can sometimes feel surrounded by predators they can’t escape.  We are in such close proximity to so many people, either in person or by proxy watching tv or listening to the radio.  Bills, creditor calls, annoyances, noise from traffic or neighbors, friends and family are everywhere.  Even the voices in our heads, worrying about this or that, can produce chatter that is difficult to ignore.

Why does stress matter?  Why does it seem to cause such harmful effects?  The stress response leads to release of hormones from the adrenal gland: cortisol, epinephrine (adrenalin), and norepinephrine (noradrenalin).  These hormones prepare the body to spring into action.  If there was an attacker right there, you’d be ready to tackle it or run away.  This hormonal response is great if you actually need to do these things.  But what if the stressor was a loud car noise outside that you quickly realize is not a danger to you?  Or maybe it is someone obnoxious at work that you’d love to give a pounding, but would rather keep your job so you have to find a way to get along.  Then you are stuck with a body at high alert, pounding heart and all, and no where to go.  What if stress is a chronic issue in itself? Having elevated stress hormones is harmful to the body over time, leading to cardiovascular problems, elevated blood sugar, fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, etc.  The Mayo Clinic website gives a good run down of stress symptoms.

In addition to all the usual stressors in life, people with chronic conditions face stresses of dealing with their conditions. Pain, fatigue and other symptoms that come with the disease process are stressful themselves.  Managing visits to multiple specialists, complicated medication regimens, special dietary needs, the impact of one’s condition on friendships and family relationships can all contribute to chronic stress.  Then, as if adding insult to injury, stress worsens most illnesses.

What a bleak picture!  Enough to make me curl up into a depressed, hopeless ball nursing my upset stomach, headache, and grinding teeth.  But there is hope.  Stress management techniques can greatly reduce the impact of stressors on our bodies.  I will address that in tomorrow’s post.

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