STRESS: A STATE OF MIND
A stress less life is yet to be constituted. All of us have experienced it thus far and regardless of how effectively we manage stress, we continue to experience it in some form. Amongst predominant reasons for causal aspects relating to stress these days, occupational stress i.e. burnout, work & finance related stress and relationship stress tops the charts. The structure of life is such that one has to get up and seek work of some sort to earn a living unless one is provided for. Whether money is the motivation or be it ambition to grow, fame, position, art, passion, music, adventure, philanthropy, connectivity with people, power, exploration and so on, all of these aspirations are on a continuum. We may attain some, we may incessantly keep seeking the others hence a goal orientation or hankering for something is inevitable as we are, in essence, seeking to bring out our potentialities or at least die trying.
As we combat forces of restraint whilst upon this charter, we negotiate these restraints, overpower some, succeed in a few but also will experience despair and stay insubstantial in many other areas. The way we represent these performance or accomplishment inadequacies to ourselves as either ‘it is calamitous’ or ‘it is merely a momentary set back’ (i.e. the bounce back factor) depends on our upbringing and affect regulating mechanisms. The former inference could lead to stress hormones being pumped into the body. This kind of stress is very common and is an essential aspect of existence as it beats complacency; helps one remain alert, circumspect and draw action centricity from within.
CAUSES OF STRESS
Parent’s/relative’s/friend’s death due to old age or instances such as a divorce, job loss, change in financial condition, child leaving home, trouble with in laws, row with the boss, marital skirmish all of these may record some seismic activity in the brain but many people recover from this. Then there are the unexpected stressors such as a grotesque accident, news of terminal illness, horrific scenes at war, natural calamity, imprisonment, loss of limb, vision, hearing etc., which unquestionably trigger a different kind of physiological response. The texture of these responses varies in individuals. It is indeed traumatic and many construe it as dreadful, calamitous, suicidal, devastating etc. while a few others may construe it as life changing disruption but manageable. Inability to perceive the latter leads to stress and any future trigger of a similar sound, smell, scene, dialogue or thought could nudge the person into PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) that could persist for years. Not everyone experiencing the above get PTSD. Many still manage to cope but a few remain stuck with the trauma and amplified stress.
The term PTSD came into existence after the Vietnam War in late 1970’s after they diagnosed US war veterans. Shell shock is also a term coined after World War I to describe battle startle induced by artillery shells. A child severely neglected and despised by primary carers during his/her formative days, continuous abuse such as violence, rape, bullying etc., concentration camp experiences, death of one’s child, suicide of a dear friend/family member are instances that could lead to complex PTSD without any predisposing conditions and could happen to anyone. Often, even without any of the above occurrences, at the slightest disarray in one’s daily existence, one can catastrophise a bleak future, experience hopelessness and pessimism which is enough to fill one’s mind with dread. Mere thoughts therefore can also lead to stress hence stress is inherently an individual’s internal response to meet environmental stimuli. Corrective action therefore must happen at the level of understanding the structures of thought, and how interpretation and experience construal is happening in the affected individual. This is precisely what various psychotherapy services aim to delineate.
Stress prepares the body for action. The ‘fight, flight, freeze’ concept and the functioning of Autonomous Nervous System (ANS) is explained in the ‘Mindfulness’ blog under the section ‘Anatomy of Stress’. Conjunctive reading will throw more light upon this matter. It is the body’s way of heightening a state of action and upon the task being done, restore it to homeostatic equilibrium. Stress need not be altogether avoided. Normal healthy levels of stress is useful in performance, sporting accomplishments and many aspects of life such as avoiding dangerous situations, adventure endeavours, extraordinary courage before war etc. but inordinate stress and at sustained levels are detrimental and can eventuate in illnesses such as hypertension, premature aging, diabetes, blood pressure, insomnia, auto immune diseases, eczema, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBD) and in certain cases fatalities. People combat acute stress in different ways; they numb themselves, detach themselves socially and emotionally, experience derealization, depersonalization, dissociative amnesia (autobiographical memory loss i.e. unable to remember things about themselves and lack of conscious self-knowledge) and other modes of disengagement. They relive their trauma through dreams, flashbacks, nightmares and shuddering thoughts. Some remain hypervigilant; an enhanced state of sensitivity to sensory inputs to anticipate and detect threats. Reliance upon such mechanisms leads to enfeeblement over time and severely affects quality of life and sociability further exacerbating one’s stress.
Unabated state of dread results in chronic stress that triggers the endocrine system and the adrenal glands releases cortisol, which is what makes us get out of the bed and prepare for action in the morning. Cortisol converts proteins into energy, releases glycogen to tackle inflammation and so on. It plays a vital role in shutting down unwanted functions such as reproduction and immune system so that entire focus can be dedicated to the oppressing stressor during emergency. Running away from a riotous scene is fine, one needs the hormonal boost but subjecting one’s body to such pummeling stress for 90 minutes awaiting Chelsea to score takes some doing. Cortisol release therefore is a short-term burst strategy of the body to optimize attentiveness but at heightened and sustained levels, it destroys healthy muscles and bone, impairs mental functioning, enervates digestion and attenuates immune system. Managing stress therefore is not ‘to stumble upon a finding’, it is a mandatory health requisite one must know and actively must keep researching and practicing.
Lying behind the encrusted layers of stress is our attitude and technique of processing thoughts regardless of however traumatic an event has been in our lives. What is our threshold of tolerating mental and emotional pressure? How are we going to deal with it? Exercise, diet, sleep, great relationships, financial well-being, gainfully employed in engaging projects, recreation all these are important in alleviating stress. It is obvious isn’t it, why then does it becomes inapplicable to most people experiencing stress or trauma? This is because of their resolute way of perceiving their life, their meaning construction about their interrelatedness with others as well as incidents, their habitual and stoic mode of inferring from discrete pieces of information and their method of interpretation which is disempowering and state lowering. Anti-depressants can contain and stabilize some aspects of distress and trauma but lasting cure and for it to remain indissoluble, talking therapies that dredge into the person’s life and experiences would be a more harmless and effective mode of intervention. As William James puts it, ‘The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.’