Stress: how it works and how to beat it

by FM Media
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Stress is a common word used in society today, but what exactly is stress and what effect does it have on our daily well-being and longevity?

The truth is that stress has many different facets – different ‘emotions’ and ‘faces’ and thus, stress affects our daily well-being in more ways than we are conscious of.

Stress also has automated pathways in the body. The body has what we call an autonomic nervous system, this means that this system runs automatically. The autonomic nervous system is a part of our peripheral nervous system and has two parts – the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response and the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ‘rest and digest’ response. To create wellness in the body we must have a well-balanced autonomic response to situations, which includes having a balanced autonomic nervous system.

But the million-dollar question is how? How do we create an environment in which we all have balanced autonomic nervous systems? We need to firstly understand what constant stress does to the autonomic nervous system.

When we become stressed about something, whether it is physiological stress from exercising, stress from our jobs or stress from a relationship, the automated response in the body is the same, as the body does not differentiate types of stress. So when stress occurs, the sympathetic nervous system is activated by any stimulus over the individual’s threshold.

Each individual has a different threshold and a stimulus can be as innocuous as ‘a feeling’, ‘a noise’, drugs and chemicals including caffeine, the phone ringing or an email. These stimuli can set off an automated response depending on how stressed you are in the first place. The sympathetic nervous system, once activated, will have the following effects:

  • dilation of pupils
  • increase in heart rate and force of contraction
  • dilation of bronchioles in the lungs through release of adrenalin
  • dilation of blood vessels in skeletal muscles
  • constriction of blood vessels in gastrointestinal organs
  • increase in perspiration
  • inhibition of peristalsis and metabolism
  • stimulation of liver to release glucose to blood stream, and
  • stimulation of adrenal glands to release stress hormones.

So you can see that there are many stimuli where you can feel the above happening automatically. Going for a run, getting angry at someone, feeling under pressure and then getting another email with more added to your list of things to do, getting multiple caffeine hits and multi-tasking all day long all stress the system and the body does not differentiate these stressors. The key in the above few paragraphs is to understand the threshold of stimuli. What amount of stimuli do you need to trigger this response?

On the opposite end of the scale we have the parasympathetic nervous system that begins to take action after the stress stimulus has responded. The parasympathetic nervous system causes the following effects in the body:

  • constriction of pupils
  • decrease in heart rate and force of contraction
  • broncho-constriction
  • stimulation of salivary glands and organs to secrete enzymes, and
  • increase in peristalsis for metabolism.

So you can see how the sympathetic nervous system prepares the body for a fight, it facilitates the supply of large volumes of blood to skeletal muscles, increases lung capacity, increases heart rate and forces the body to work at capacity. Glucose is consistently released into the blood for an immediate source of energy.

The parasympathetic nervous system does the opposite – it cleans up the mess, reducing pupil dilation, slowing down the heart rate and returning breathing to normal. The parasympathetic nervous system starts to prepare the body to rest and digest by stimulating salivary glands, increasing motility in the gastrointestinal tract and releasing the necessary enzymes for metabolism.

What happens when our sympathetic nervous system is constantly being stimulated and our parasympathetic nervous system inhibited? Or if there is not enough time in between stressful scenarios for the parasympathetic nervous system to clean up the mess before the next bout of stress occurs?

In a facilities management position, your stress response is bound to be on high alert as you juggle endless tasks and situations throughout the day/week, email after email and complaint after complaint with little thanks. It is no wonder your stress response is on high alert, as you’re constantly in a state of reaction to various issues arising throughout the day, sometimes all at once with multiple tasks all in need of urgent attention on the same day.

Stress tends to build up over time. If you are constantly trying to manage multiple tasks all day long, then busy days can quickly turn into busy weeks, which turn into busy months and, before long, pressure builds until you burst at the seams and that is when that last email of the day sends you over the edge.

By now your sympathetic nervous system is well into overdrive and is in a state of constant stimulation every time the phone rings, an email arrives, another meeting is added to your schedule. Unfortunately, your parasympathetic nervous system never actually has a chance to switch on and start working long enough that the body is calmed down sufficiently to digest properly and relax. Instead you are left in a constant state of underlying anxiety.

As I mentioned previously, the key to understanding how to create balance is to understand your threshold for stimulus and stress.

If you do not allow yourself time to relax and recover by allowing your sympathetic nervous system time to wind down, and allow the parasympathetic system to start working during times of high stress, then your threshold for a stressful stimulus will continue to lower and your anxiety will increase.

This creates an unhealthy autonomic response to stress and before long you will unconsciously be addicted to stress and the constant rush of adrenalin. This is the underlying factor for most injuries and health issues you experience at some point on your life journey and the reason you just can’t seem to relax.

The trick to a balanced autonomic nervous system with a healthy response to stress, is simply allowing your body to recover from your daily activities or, in other words, allowing your parasympathetic nervous system time to do its job properly. You can do this by creating balance – long walks, deep breathing exercises, stretching, relaxing exercise or something as simple as taking a hot bath.

As simple as it may seem, for the time poor, it is difficult to implement these new habits sometimes. The most important thing to remember, however, is that being conscious of the process helps and the little things count. In periods of high stress, make time for at least one thing that allows your body to relax. And one thing anyone has time for would be to make deep breathing part of your daily stress management routine. Have you ever noticed when you are stressed that you catch yourself holding your breath or your breaths are quite shallow? You can calm your sympathetic nervous system by simply breathing deeply.

The breath and the nervous system are connected, and the act of deep conscious breathing calms the nervous system. The sympathetic chain for the sympathetic nervous system runs straight in front of the rib heads; tension in the ribs can affect the sympathetic nervous system and that is why most people have tightness between the shoulders when they are stressed.

By breathing deeply and openly, you create space between the ribs and allow tension in your shoulders to dissipate, as you no longer need to engage your shoulder muscles to breathe. The rib cage becomes suppler and the sympathetic nervous system starts to relax.

So for all those facilities managers who say they do not have time, there is no longer an excuse, because everyone has time to breathe deeply while doing daily activities. Remember to regulate your breathing in times of high stress and good luck creating balance in your daily lives.

This article appeared in the February/March print edition of Facility Management. The author, Dr Allison Van Ommen, is an osteopath based in South Melbourne at Without Limits Health and Osteopathy. She is a former elite water polo athlete, having played in the European Professional Water Polo league. She is also a previous member of the Victorian Tigers National League Women’s Water Polo Team and Victorian Institute of Sport squad.

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