What Happens When You Are Stressed
When you perceive danger, either real or imagined, your body responds instantly with a series of chemical and muscular changes that readies you for physical combat or to run away. Adrenaline is released into your bloodstream, accelerating your pulse. Your muscles tense, to get ready to fight. All maintenance stops, digestion stops, everything not needed to get you through the next few seconds stops. You might even hold your breath for a bit and then breath shallowly, in case you need to hide from a predator. Your blood chemistry changes, so that if you are wounded, you won’t bleed as much.
This is a magnificent, life-saving response built into your body. It is exquisitely tuned to prepare you to cope with immediate physical danger that requires action over the next few seconds. As you already know, it is not very useful at all in dealing with modern life, whether it be tests, audits, asking for a raise, giving a presentation, or asking someone to marry you. Having sweaty palms, a palpitating heart, tense muscles (and if the stress you feel is great enough, diarrhea), is not really what we would call a state of readiness for action.
The reaction comes on quickly and leaves slowly, because it takes time for the adrenaline to be processed through your system, even if it is a false alarm. There are places in the world where the alarms are not false, where there are immediate physical dangers lurking everywhere, but that is not the rule in most of civilization. So, interestingly, the stress response itself has become one of the biggest killers of people in countries where modern medicine and sanitation have mostly eliminated the other dangers to health.
Life is about going for challenges. Almost everything good involves challenging your set of adaptations. Having to orient, re-orient, come up with new behaviors, invent new ways of doing things. These are all challenges and joys of the modern world. The stress response does not help much if the “danger” is moving your desk from one side of the office to the next.
The stress or emergency response trumps everything. It overrides whatever long-range plans you have. Pushing the stress juice button needlessly is like living with someone who often pretends to be desperately sick, and they have to be taken to the hospital instantly. Put the emergency room charges on your credit card. Lives are at stake! Huge charges build up at high interest rate. Whoops, false alarm. Reaction time is about a tenth of a second, and the adrenaline starts kicking in soon after that. Doing this a lot can throw off the body’s sense of timing. And a lot of what we do in terms of addictions and bad habits are just an attempt to restore our timing.
What is Your Particular Response to Stress?
• Body. Sweaty palms, dizziness, ringing in the ears, headache, indigestion, backache, heart racing, fatigue.
• Behavior. Compulsive eating or smoking, or else self-starvation and denial of healthy needs. Grinding the teeth at night. Anxiously scanning the environment even when safe.
• Emotions. Crankiness, irritability, irrational anger, lack of pleasure. Depression, loneliness, powerlessness.
• Mental Functioning. Continual worry resulting in difficulty making decisions and thinking clearly. Tunnel vision on the object of worry, leaving no time for the big picture.
• Relationships. Taking the stress out on your loved ones. Blaming others. Isolating in order to not rage at others, or overloading your relationships with your distress. Chronic intolerance, distrust, suspicion, and other relationship-killing emotional tones.
We all know these in ourselves, at least momentarily. Some of them we have all gotten stuck in here and there at some point in life. Others we may have had major battles with.
When our bodies stay in the stress response for long periods of time, our self-repair mechanisms sometimes do not get to function enough to keep us healthy. Then what are known to be stress-related illnesses can occur – chronic stress may be a factor in bringing on these ailments, and stress can make them worse. Staying stressed and not giving the body time off can put quite a bit of wear and tear on almost all body parts, but how it shows up is different for each person – it can contribute to backaches, skin disorders, eating disorders, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, hypertension, heart attacks, chronic pain, and immune system disorders.
Taken as a whole, the list seems overwhelming. There aren’t enough doctors and therapists in the world to deal with everyone’s response to stress. Indeed, study after study has shown that about 80% of all visits to the doctor are from stress-related illnesses.
Everyday Impact of Long-Term Stress
Even slight amounts of stress can make us feel like fighting or running away, if we have been caught unawares. The animal in us has only the input from our senses and emotions to go by, and if we are letting it mistake bills and vague, abstract discomforts for actual life-threatening dangers, we will have problems – self-generated problems. If this goes on for a long time, we are in essence caging up our inner animal and torturing it. If you live in the civilized world, and you do not stay alert to the propaganda being fed you, you are always at risk of becoming a trapped animal. One of the great things about civilization is that people so rarely kill each other. Despite what you see on the news, most people in modern urban areas live longer than ever before in known history. The media, with their incessant banging away at statistically tiny dangers, may rob years off your life in the way that cigarettes do.
If you have been under sustained stress at some point in your life – you went through a war, a phase of your life that just felt like a war, childhood sexual abuse, a terrible divorce, or any of a number of such events, you may have developed an adaptation, a repeated behavior. The body can become trapped in a twisted attempt to release itself from chronic tension, what is called an addictions. Addictions tend to have something good about them, a primitive logic. If the tension was very great, perhaps you developed a habit of drinking alcohol, which is a muscle relaxant. Smoking cigarettes is somewhat relaxing. Overeating, although it is a challenge to the digestive system, can create sleepiness. Finally you rest a bit. Illegal drugs of many all sorts relieve pain – marijuana and cocaine are great pain killers. We can try to lose our pain in relationship, through compulsive sex, or through being involved with someone who hurts more than we do.
When such “adaptations” to chronic tension happen, they are hell to live with and a different kind of hell to get out of. They can take over and rule your life. All your vitality, your wealth, your life’s blood of creativity, can be stolen by these behaviors, which started out as an attempt by the body to release stress.
Perhaps you avoid bad habits, but your blood pressure becomes permanently elevated by the stress hormones circulating in your blood over such a long period of time.
When you meditate, you take the bull by the horns, as they say. You intentionally evoke a state in which your body sloughs off stress at a rapid rate. We need it to be rapid because we have to be able to sit down in the evening when we come home, meditate, and then have dinner at a reasonable hour, and then go on with the evening. We need to be able to get up in the morning and meditate to prepare for the day.