The Physics Of Stress

Words: Dr Rajgopal NIDAMBOOR

Stress is an inevitable part of our life and existence.

While it is agreed that the stress response does not make us ready for instant action, it sure makes way for what is referred to as short-term stress response, famously called the fight-or-flight response.

This mechanism clearly involves a rapid switch of priorities — for long-term and short-term survival. It also reflects our biological response. Because, when stress responses are channelled to systems that might need to manage immediate challenges, they also make you run, or stand and fight.

In situations such as these, your body will need extra energy and quickness of thought and action — to operate and/or react.

How Stress Affects Us

Most of the biological changes that accompany the stress response are designed to mobilise the body’s fuel reserves — to convert them into a form suitable for immediate use. This also extends to processes that provide fuel, together with the extra oxygen required to burn it, and also the organs most likely to need it — the brain and key muscles.

When we are under stress, this action takes place at the expense of other biological systems, such as growth and reproduction which, though essential, in the longer term, are not essential for immediate survival. For instance, the hormonal systems that regulate growth and reproduction are plumbed into the stress response and are profoundly influenced by it.

Prolonged stress, for instance, hampers the secretion of the growth hormone and also the sex hormones. To put it caustically, there is no use for libido if you are attacked, or intimidated by a gun-wielding terrorist.

Stress ‘acts’ as a mediator for one part of the nervous apparatus — called the sympathetic nervous system — which deals with the body’s housekeeping functions under normal conditions. It is, therefore, well placed for rapidly re-adjusting our priorities.

What Happens During Stress

Your pulse, blood pressure, and breathing rate increase — to help boost the supply of available energy.

Think of an idiom — the pounding heart. Besides beating faster under stress, the heart now pumps a greater quantity of blood with each beat.

The bronchial tubes also dilate to facilitate the passage for more air with each breath. The blood vessels supplying the muscles expand just as well. The palms of the hands and the soles of the feet begin to perspire, primarily because a damp surface provides a much better grip of things.

Behavioural science tells us that our stress response evolved in our forebears — to help them manage in a world without shoes.

Other events are also as just eventful. As the pupils of your eyes now dilate to let in more light and improve your vision, your mental alertness and reaction times are also speeded up.

However, when things go far too much beyond one’s control, the situation becomes quite terrifying for the other part of the nervous system — the parasympathetic mechanism. This leads to involuntary urination and also defecation.

Damaging yourself in this way might be messy, but having an empty bladder and bowel could often be more than helpful when things get frantic. Jokes apart, relieving oneself, therefore, makes us not only lighter and also less ‘tempting’ to a prospective ‘marauder’ — or, any stress-related event, or episode.

It may be mentioned, again, that, in a stressful situation, biological functions not vital for short-term survival are closed down. When this happens, long-term energy reserves in the form of stored fat are broken down into fatty acids and also glycerol which can be metabolised straight away.

In the meanwhile, carbohydrates stored in the liver are mobilised and converted into glucose, just as much as blood is shunted away from the extremities towards the heart, muscles, and brain.

It is at this stage that the peripheral blood vessels constrict — you get cold hands and feet. ‘Cold feet,’ a famed literary expression, is a reaction that takes place in anticipation of an unpleasant event. It is a typical stress response. This, in effect, leads to the shutdown of energy-consuming processes, which also includes the production of saliva. You get that typical feeling of a dry mouth with loss of appetite and agitated bowels.

It is not amusing to know that the use of a physiological response to assess a person’s mental state was effectively used as an early version of the polygraph, and it was, or is, just as accurate. Such is its physiological theme — a classical symptom of short-term stress response.

It does not take a genius to tell that when someone ‘gets the wind up,’ they are displaying the physiological effects of sympathetic nervous system arousal.

Good & Bad

When you measure stress response in terms of aiding survival in a dangerous world, it makes sense to think of it as a good thing. Simple reason — a physiologically aroused organism is better able to deal with life-or-death situations. What’s more, the stress response, in this case, is entirely normal. We have evolved to respond to stressors in this manner. Also, there is nothing unusual, or weird, about finding threats to our health and well-being unpleasant and, therefore, seeking to avoid them.

However, it is a totally different thing if stress is triggered several times a day, under unusual circumstances, or for prolonged period. This can lead to not just adjustment difficulties, but also health disorders.

It goes without saying that stress has psychological outcomes as well as psychological causes. It changes the way we perceive the world. It also affects our senses, memory, judgment, and behaviour.

To illustrate the point. Look at the way in which our nervous system processes sensory information. This is modified by the stress hormone, cortisol. A high cortisol level is a characteristic feature of stress, accompanied by a reduction in sensory sharpness, or the ability to detect weak stimuli and a clear accompanying improvement in sensory discrimination.

The latter, as you know, enables us to make finer distinctions between disparate stimuli. While all our senses, including taste, smell, hearing, and balance, are affected, someone with high cortisol levels, for instance, will not be able to decipher the presence of a weak resonance, but they will be able to tell two somewhat different sounds apart, because of the heightened state of sensitivity aroused by stress.

What Is As It Is

Whatever the nature of our evolutionary origins, a readjustment in our sensory abilities makes good biological sense.

Flashback. When confronted by a wild animal, or hostile adversary, our Stone Age forebears’ chances of survival, for instance, would only have improved if their senses were optimised for dealing with the immediate threat, or ignoring anything that was not pertinent.

What does this signify? To be able to make fine discriminations between relatively intense stimuli rather than detecting the presence of faint stimuli, or signal, which we are now prone to do — but not always. It is also a signal that tells us what-is of a stressful situation as-it-is.

It is established that a hormone released during the stress response — noradrenaline — enhances the signal-processing capability of our sensory system.

To cut a long story short — the stress response originates in and is co-ordinated by the brain. Long before a stress response takes place the organism, however, must first perceive a threat to its well-being. This may involve all manner of conscious and unconscious thoughts, beliefs, memories, and emotions.

It must also be remembered that several parts of the brain play a major role in processing all this information. This includes the cerebral cortex and other higher centres of the brain. Interestingly, conscious thought may not be just as involved when all this happens.

When your brain decides — consciously, or unconsciously — that all is not well, the hypothalamus is activated. The hypothalamus is the region of the forebrain — the source of many of the primary electrical and chemical signals which trigger the complete stress response in our body. The hypothalamus also regulates functions, such as eating, drinking, intellectual and sensual pleasures.

When stress activity is evidenced, the reticular activating system, or network of cells, will also be boosting your general level of arousal and awareness — so as to make you more responsive to signals from your sensory organs and less receptive to information that is of no immediate relevance. Example: minor pains, or bodily sensations.

So, there you are. When a disaster is about to happen, an itchy, or a runny nose would not be able to disturb, or distract your attention.

Stress Response

There are two major biological systems involved in the conduction of the stress response. They are the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal system. The sympathetic system links the brain to the internal organs. It also carries the maintenance messages needed to regulate essential functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and digestion. The sympathetic nervous system essentially regulates the unconscious aspects of our basic bodily functions. However, in a stressful situation, it becomes the chief negotiator of the body’s immediate alarm reaction — which, as already cited, is called the fight-or-flight response.

In the initial phase of a stress response the hypothalamus, which we touched upon earlier, stimulates the nerve endings in the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal glands — this causes them to release the two hormones, noradrenaline and adrenaline.

For instance, a mildly stressful activity, such as public speaking, may generally bring forth a 50 percent spike in the amount of noradrenaline.

The inference is obvious — people suffering from chronic stress, or anxiety, may register persistently raised levels of both adrenaline and noradrenaline.

Stress In Daily Life

Just take a look around, including you — if that’s the case. One in ten individuals is over-stressed at any given moment in time. Stress is not only physical and mental. It causes tangible chemical changes in the brain. These changes can manipulate the state of your health and well-being

If stress indicates any change in your normal routine, or health, it also warns us before bad things happen. Likewise, it can indicate good and happy things, or tidings. The anticipation of getting a raise, or promotion is stressful; so also being fired from your job.

Needless to say, speculative changes can bring much stress as real changes. Contemplation and expectation about whether or not you will get that new project is stressful. The same holds good when you are offered a new position, or responsibility.

Women, for instance, are predominantly vulnerable to stress caused by hormonal changes. Stress occurs during puberty, menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and menopause, owing to fluctuation in hormone levels.

We are prone to emotional and physical changes in our day-to-day life. This also includes illnesses and environmental elements — heat, cold, or altitude, pollutants and toxins. Besides, some of us have a habit of pushing our body too hard at work, or sports, and for whatever reason. This has the potential to drain our body of the energy it needs to restore itself. The result is amplified stress.

Stress-Linked Illness

Stress is suggested to be one of the contributing factors for as varied disorders as backaches and insomnia, cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome [CFS]. It can also lead to the absence of menstruation and abnormal bleeding in women. Besides being evidenced that hormonal imbalances caused by stress may propagate symptoms of fibroid tumours and endometriosis, stress is also implicated in fertility problems in couples.

In a nutshell, heart disease, a stress-related affection, is one of the leading causes of death on a global scale. Reason: high blood pressure, heart attacks, heart palpitations, and stroke are suggested to be stress-related cardiovascular conditions.

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 many others [either sex] who often feel the effects of stress — viz., fatigue, various aches and pains, headaches, and migraines, lack of sexual yearning, or emotional disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and sleep difficulties. This is not all. Stress can cause gastrointestinal disorders including ulcers, lower abdominal cramps, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome [IBS], to mention just a few.

It is also not infrequent for people with severe stress to be subject to frequent colds, allergies and infections, thanks to reduced immune system reaction time, or function. As a matter of fact, stress can set off skin conditions, such as itching and rashes, including atopic dermatitis [eczema], and so on.

Coping With Stress  

No one is exempt from stress. The more our inability to deal with stress, the worse it is. It is, therefore, not without reason that how we manage stress is related to various efforts being used to control and/or reduce it. This can be fine-tuned to suit individual needs and with good effect.

Medical professionals suggest the following strategies to be useful to keeping the stress ‘wolf’ from the door. You could use it as a base and/or adapt it differently, if you so wish. Either way, you will be able to deal with stress better, and more effectively —

  • A positive attitude, or thinking, is a must. Try to develop it
  • De-focus the negative, and try to focus on positive thoughts
  • Reduce negative feelings as far as possible
  • Do not crib. Instead, try to bring in some enjoyment in your activity, or take a break
  • Exercise regularly. Exercise, or physical activity, is one of the best remedies available to reduce stress.
  • Nutrition is just as important as exercise. Eat a well-balanced diet. Also, take an appropriate vitamin-mineral supplement in consultation with a therapist. The mineral, magnesium, for instance, is evidenced to be one of the most useful key nutrients in stress-related problems
  • Interact socially with people. Remember — when you are extremely stressed out, you will feel quite relaxed talking to loved ones and/or friends.
  • Get in touch with people you know, or don’t know, and exchange a smile. A smile takes you a mile
  • Cherish yourself, entertain yourself, seek yourself, and also others. Take time for personal interests and hobbies. Also, for your family
  • Practice relaxation/meditation techniques. Listen to soft, soulful music
  • Practice yoga, t’ai chi, or qigong
  • Try to know yourself. Only then you will know the ‘Real You’
  • Read a funny book. Or, watch a slap-stick comedy — may be, Laurel & Hardy, or Charlie Chaplin. Try to laugh and laugh your stresses out.

Speak to your doctor, counsellor, or psychiatrist, if things go out of control, or you are just not able to bring balance to your life with lifestyle changes and/or modifications.

Dr RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR, PhD, is a wellness physician-writer-editor, independent researcher, critic, columnist, author and publisher. His published work includes hundreds of newspaper, magazine, web articles, essays, meditations, columns, and critiques on a host of subjects, eight books on natural health, two coffee table tomes and an encyclopaedic treatise on Indian philosophy. He is Chief Wellness Officer, Docco360 — a mobile health application/platform connecting patients with Ayurveda, homeopathic and Unani physicians, and nutrition therapists, among others, from the comfort of their home — and, Editor-in-Chief, ThinkWellness360.

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