Stress: I’m all too familiar with it. As I write this blog I feel the stress of the deadline rapidly approaching. Writing is not my forte, so I tend to start writing assignments at the last minute, which puts me under pressure and causes, well…stress. I can feel the heaviness in my chest, the adrenaline pumping through my body, and the anxiety of “what do I say” go around and around in my brain. I feel stuck, not knowing how to move forward. This is a common feeling that happens more frequently than I would like to admit! Since April is stress awareness month, I thought it would be a good time to address this six letter word and find out what it is, how it affects our bodies, and what we can do to reduce or manage it.
The term “stress” was first coined in 1936 by scientist Hans Selye, who defined it as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change.”1 Selye tested different noxious physical and emotional stimuli, such as blaring light, deafening noise, extreme heat or cold, or perpetual frustration, on laboratory animals. He found pathological changes in the animals, including stomach ulcerations, shrinkage of the lymphoid tissue, and enlargement of the adrenal glands. Hans Selye was able to demonstrate that persistent stress to the lab animals could cause various serious conditions such as heart attacks, stroke, kidney disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. Sound familiar? These are found all too commonly in humans as well.
According to The American Institute of Stress, a good modern working definition is that stress is “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.”1 For example, when we’re on a rollercoaster at the fairground, or in the middle of a crisis at work, we might feel as though the situation is too much for us, and feel stressed. These situations usually pass quickly: this kind of stress is “acute.” If you are always running late for some reason, or are frequently worrying about something, you might be experiencing “episodic” acute stress. “Chronic” stress is when your stress doesn’t resolve itself, and it lasts for prolonged periods of time. An example of a situation inducing chronic stress could be an unhappy marriage, or an upsetting work environment.2
Some argue that stress can be a good thing, because it motivates people to be productive. I would like to argue that instead it’s the external “pressure” to perform that can be a good thing, but that when this pressure exceeds our capabilities, we feel it as stress.
In physics and engineering, stress is defined to be “a force that tends to strain or deform.” Imagine blowing into a balloon: as you blow into it, the pressure inside the balloon goes up and makes the balloon expand. If you release the pressure and let the air out, the balloon returns to it’s original shape. However, if you keep blowing, and blowing, and blowing, eventually the pressure gets too much for the balloon, and it pops. What you’re left with are some pieces of balloon that you can’t blow up again – you went past its tipping point, your demand exceeding the balloon’s resources. It turns out that something similar happens with our bodies. In the “Human Functional Curve” in the figure, you can see that as the pressure on us increases, there is an increase in our performance.1 However, if we go past our tipping point, things get bad very quickly. Each of us has a different tipping point, but when we reach it, the stress becomes too much for us, and causes a rapid decrease in performance, and distress. We experience exhaustion, breakdown, burnout, panic, and often ill health. Since we all have different tipping points, we need to be aware of our own early warning signs of stress overload. Many of us ignore these early warning signs until it’s too late.
What sort of signs should we be looking for? At first, you might notice the little changes, such as an increased heart rate, palpitations, difficulty sleeping, etc. If your stress decreases, these will likely return to your “normal” state. Repetitive stress over a period of time, however, can eventually lead to a serious condition, such as a heart attack or stroke. Here are 50 common signs and symptoms of stress that I highly encourage you to take a look at. A few common signs or symptoms of stress, as they relate to pelvic pain, include muscle spasms, frequent infections, constipation, diarrhea, frequent urination, diminished sexual desire or performance, excess anxiety, and fatigue. Research has shown that stress can slow down wound healing and it can increase pain levels.3 I can’t tell you how many times a patient has come in and told me that they’ve had a stressful week and their pain has increased, or that when they were on vacation, it was great because they had less pain.
Stress has an impact on every system within our body. When under extreme stress, the nervous system shifts into a “fight or flight” response causing our adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol. This will cause an increase in blood pressure and heart rate and boost glucose levels. Repetitive strain on the cardiovascular system, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, can lead to heart disease and an increased risk of a heart attack. When under stress, the endocrine system produces the hormones cortisol and epinephrine, AKA stress hormones. These hormones cause our liver to produce more glucose, which gives us more energy for the “fight or flight” response. An increase in glucose levels is not helpful for those suffering from diabetes. An increase in cortisol will also have an impact on our reproductive system. For men, this can cause erectile dysfunction and impair testosterone and sperm production. Women may experience decreased sexual desire, changes in the menstrual cycle, and painful periods. Within the musculoskeletal system, repetitive stress will cause muscles to contract and tense up leading to myofascial trigger points and myofascial pain, such as pelvic pain. Difficulty breathing, rapid breath, and/or shallow breathing are side effects of stress on the respiratory system. For some, these respiratory changes can cause panic attacks. Within the gastrointestinal system, stress can cause a change in our eating habits, causing us to either eat more or less than normal. Our digestive tract can experience constipation or diarrhea.4
So, how can we keep ourselves healthy and avoid stress overload? Stress reduction is different for every person: there is no magic cure-all potion, you need to find what is best for you. Some people find relief in exercising, while others find it in a creative outlet: painting, mindfulness meditation, soccer, yoga, whatever it takes to take your mind off whatever is stressing you out.
Here’s another idea. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser is the director of the Institute for Behavioural Medicine Research at Ohio State University. In her 2016 interview with NPR on stress and diet, she states that close, personal relationships and doing nice things for others can help reduce stress.3 While it could be challenging to do a good deed when stressed, I can see how it could help me unstick myself. I’ll keep this in mind for next quarter’s blog! In the meantime, I’m going to go do my own personal favorite stress-relieving activity, and dance in the kitchen with my favorite person.
- The American Institute of Stress. What is Stress? https://www.stress.org/what-is-stress/
- American Psychological Association. Stress: The Different Kinds of Stress. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-kinds.aspx
- Aubrey, Allison. Chill Out: Stress Can Override Benefits of Healthful Eating. NPR 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/09/27/494922257/chill-out-stress-can-override-benefits-of-healthy-eating
- The American Institute of Stress. Stress Effects. https://www.stress.org/stress-effects/