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To learn more about identifying stress, there are many sources on the web that have stress calculation exercises where you can quantify and analyze what type of stress you are under. It’s not necessary for relaxation to know “why” you are stressed, however, decreasing negative stimuli from your life, solving unresolved issues, and changing thought patterns to ones that are more positive are all beneficial and will reduce stress in the future. If you need help identifying your stressors: See Thomas Holmes “Schedule of Recent Experiences”, keep a diary, or make a list of 1. All the things that are causing you stress, 2. the extent to which these things cause you discomfort on a scale of 1-10, 3. & the symptoms of stress you exhibit with each experience.
Sources of Stress
Stress researchers Lazarus & Folkman (1984) said stress is felt when you define your situation as dangerous, difficult, or painful and you don’t have the resources to cope with it.
Social – pressures to succeed & accomplish, perform, love & be loved, competing demands for your attention & time, loss & grief.
Physiological – bodily changes in maturity & old age, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, inadequate sleep, injury & trauma.
Psychological – how you interpret your past & present experiences, what you predict for your future.
How Your Body Reacts to Stress
Symptoms of Stress
Emotional Symptoms – anxiety in specific situations, general anxiety, anxiety in personal relationships, depression, anger, irritability, resentment, phobias, fear, unrelenting shame, oppression.
Physical Symptoms – muscular tension, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, headaches, neck aches, backaches, muscle spasms, insomnia, sleep disturbances, indigestion, abdominal pain, cold sweat, dry mouth, and hyperventilation.
Mental Symptoms- worry, repetitive thoughts, faithlessness, inability to “let go”, inability to forgive, holding grudges, excessive guilt, excessive mistrust of others, paranoia, ingratitude, inability to concentrate, nightmares, blaming.
Flight of Fight Response
Walter B Cannon was the first to describe the “flight or fight response”. The essence of the idea is that when you interpret or predict a situation as dangerous, painful, or too difficult there is a series of biochemical changes that occur in your body giving you the energy to either fight the threat or run away. It is a useful & necessary survival technique.
Hans Seyle (1978), the first major researcher on stress, was able to trace that biochemical process of stress. He also found that any threat, real or imagined, can stimulate the sympathetic nervous system and the flight or fight response.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is what regulates the “flight or fight” biochemical processes. It is characterized by symptoms such as increased heart rate, increased breath rate, pupil contraction, capillary constriction, a stop in digestion, burst of energy, increased sweat, increased ATP (energy) production, increased muscle tension, increased metabolism, hearing becomes more acute, blood gets directed away from extremities and digestive system into larger muscles and core protection, the adrenal glands secrete corticoids (adrenaline, epinephrine), collagen production increases, etc. This is the energy and physical resources needed to fight or run.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) does the opposite functions & increases relaxation, digestion, and dilation.
If everything works correctly, when we experience stress, our body turns on our SNS, called the “Alarm” or “Arousal” Phase, we cope with the stress (using the increased energy to alleviate the negative stimuli), and then our body turns on the PNS so we can relax again when the situation is no longer dangerous. But what happens when our Sympathetic NS (Arousal) won’t turn off and we can't relax? The long term effects of increased SNS activity inhibit digestion, growth, reproduction, tissue repair, immune function, strength & muscle function, flexibility, etc.; and cause abnormal rhythms, fascial restrictions, poor biomechanics, chronic physical pain, disease, and mental trauma.
When stressors are unrelenting, or small stressors accumulate, your body continues to perceive a threat, remains aroused, and you are unable to recover. The stress becomes chronic. It interferes with normal life. It becomes disease.
When we are already in a state of chronic stress, what happens when we experience more stressors? More stress means more tension and decreased function. The shoulders rise a little bit higher. Over time, if there is no let down, we forget what it feels like to be relaxed. The “stressed” state becomes our new “normal”. We lose the ability to relax. This is called adaptation.
In 1951, Hans Selye’s research on stress showed that the body always reacts to various stimuli in the same non-specific way. This was termed the adaptation syndrome consisting of a bodily alarm phase, resistance phase, and exhaustion phase.
Alarm- When we are injured we go into a state of dissociation. It is a survival technique. Our body and mind experience the instinctive “freeze” response. This positional physiological memory becomes imprinted into our subconscious and conscious body awareness. The nervous system becomes stuck in a state of hyper- arousal. Tension becomes "locked" into our bodies and minds. The more stressors we endure, the greater the hyper- arousal becomes.
Resistance or Adaptation Phase- If stressors continue the body adapts to the stressors. Changes take place in order to cope with the stressors or reduce their effect. For example, your posture changes to shelter or protect a dysfunctional area. Symptoms of stress appear. Patterns of stress-related emoting, thinking, and behaving are reinforced in our brains and become part of our identity. Soon, they become our primary responses because they are the most used.
When clients come to my office in this state, their muscles are like 2x4s. The massage work does very little. After treatment, they say they feel relaxed, but to me their muscles feel just as tight. They’ve lost the ability to discern between stressed and relaxed. The goal then becomes re-learning to differentiate between what “stress” and “relaxation” feel like in the body, and then increasing the space between the two extremes.
Exhaustion Phase- The body’s resistance to stress may gradually decline or just collapse. The body’s ability to resist disease is eliminated.
Holmes, Thomas, MD. (1981). Schedule of Recent Experience. The University of Washington Press. Davis, Martha, PhD; Eschelman, Elizabeth Robbins, MSW; McKay, Matthew, PhD. (2008). The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook. New Harbinger Publications. Lazarus, R.S., and S. Folkman. (1984). Stress Appraisal and Coping. Springer Publishing. Seyle, H. (1978). The Stress of Life. McCraw Hill.