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The Negative Side of Stress

It's a running joke these days..."Go to your happy place..."  very often heard when you, or someone you know, is in a frustrating situation over which they feel they have little control.  And while the "happy place" is not meant to solve any of your problems, it will help lessen the impact of the truck load of stress related chemicals your brain dumps into your body in response to any real or perceived challenges life tosses as you.


It's the old "freeze...flight or fight" response (you and your dirty mind).  First, your body FREEZES while your brain tries to interpret what the hell is going on .....(the ehemicals now SLAMMING into all your cells like an internal pinball game). 

Then it decides to fight against what is going on, or take off burn off the chemicals.

It's not a bad thing.  It's what kept the human race alive when they first encountered things like saber tooth tigers.  Kill it---or run away.  

The chemicals your brain releases when you face this sort of stress changes your body to make it better at doing either of those things.  Problem is...what if the stress is your boss yelling at you?  Or your kids having trouble with school? What if someone you care about is ill and needs constant help which comes at the cost of your own health and energy?  

Kill or run away is not always possible. So what does our body do with all those chemicals if we can't run or fight?

While being incredibly complex, the brain reacts to real and perceived stress in pretty much the same way. This is why roller coasters are so scary.  Our brain perceives danger and your brain releases all the same chemicals whether you are safely harnessed in a seat or free falling over a cliff with no parachute.   You can't run from the roller coaster  (well, and not expect to get kicked out of the park...) so you scream and yell and holler and gasp as the physical release (fight response).  

Stress is also subjective so not everyone will react the same way.  


When I was in my mid 20's I traveled around Australia for 9 months.  Now if you don't know already, Australia has some of the biggest BUGS in the world!   

I don't like bugs.

Needless to say, my first few months included many terrifying encounters with GIGANTIC flying cockroaches, mammoth, deadly spiders (one built a web over my bunk bed at one hostel and we were always warned to take flashlights to the toilet at night to check under the seat --I didn't ask what for...)
and too many too many legged things.

I used to hopscotch around huge cockroaches them walking home from nights out dancing and if I did, by mistake, step on one---the crunch-squelch sound was followed immediately by high pitched "SQUEEEEEEEE!" as I danced around, covering my ears too late, and hoping my howls would scrape the "crunch" from my brain or at least deafen me permanently so I would never, ever, have to hear ANYTHING again.

Fast forward four months and 50-60 crunch-squelch missteps later, and  I could walk home at night barely noticing them.  The bugs were still there.  I still stepped on them.  The only thing that had changed was my perception of the incident. It became common, and therefore lost its impact.  I was desensitized to the trigger (a helpful thing that psychologists use to help people get over all sorts of fears---by repeatedly exposing them to it until it no longer triggers the response.)

Some 20+ years later though, I am pretty sure the crunch-squelch would illicit the SQUEEEEEEE again. 

Another example that comes to mind is when I was gardening last year.  My sister was by helping me set some plants out for later planting while I knelt in front of the compost bin, digging out some dark soil.  Four or five shovels into scooping out tumbled four brown, baby mice--eyes not yet open.


I scooped them up and figured if I could just gently open up the next-pocket I had ruptured, I could tuck them back inside.  Using a small trowel, I poked the area where the shovel had last been, ever so softly.  

Out tumbled six more.


So I scooped up their soft little bodies in my two hands and hollered for my sister.  I needed another set of hands.  This was not going well.

My sister came around the corner of the shed to see what I was hollering about and I turned to her, still on my knees, holding up the handfuls of baby mice.  

Before I could get a word out she completely flipped out and I heard the family SQUEEEEEEEEEE! erupt from her as she back peddled so fast she tripped over my shovel and lay screaming on the ground, arms flung over her face.  

I looked down at my hands.  

Yup. Mice.  

Blind, furry, soft, baby mice.  Just checking.

I turned  back to the dirt pile, tucked the mice on my lap and using my fingers, gently tested the earth for openings.  When I found a hollowed out, grass lined nest, I scooped them up a few at a time, shuttling them back home, and then closed up the opening as best I could, shutting the compost bin door when I finished.  

So for me, no freeze.  No fight.  No flight.  
For my sister....

Eh.  We're all different.

You can see how annoying it would be if I had suggested to her at the moment where I can only guess she thought I was offering up a handful of baby mice as a snack??? that she go to her "happy place" might not work.

But, if you can get past that initial shock of whatever triggers your stress, shifting quickly into a space where your perception of the situation is calm, it can help shut off the torrent of stress hormones running amok in your system.

Unfortunately, once triggered, these stress response chemicals can do all sorts of nasty things to your glands, organs and tissues which damages your immune system.  

Physical symptoms of stress vary but include an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, vital organ blood vessel dilation, as the body freezes.  

Imagine all those hormones being released in your body ---now flush an energized-- and the first thing your body does is shut down for a second, before trying to decide on fight or flight.  All those chemicals SLAM into your cells, ricocheting around like a bad pinball game that sends bells ringing and lights flashing and you are frozen for that moment ---until the fight or flight kicks in. 

Negative effects of stress include rising blood cholesterol, social withdrawl, irritability, depression, anger, nausea, teeth grinding, anxiety, suppression of the immune system and a host of other features.   

Faced with limited time and resources, doctors are more likely to offer up quick relief solutions --sleeping pills, anti-depressants, cholesterol medication, a mouth guard.....never getting to the trigger that upset the normal mental and physical health of the patient before them.  


It's a bit like when I used to teach grade 8 English.  If a child could not read by the time he/she got to my class, it became about managing their learning and finding coping mechanisms, like books on tape or reading aloud to the class.  The system was not set up to "go back" and get to the root and invest the time in the much longer term solution of teaching a 13 year old to read.

Doctors have begun taking this link between psychological factors and health seriously, and medical schools have started adding psychoneuroimmunolgy to the curriculum so doctors can better understand the mind/body connection. 

Back to the "happy place" discussion......  There is a huge benefit to you if you have a few "happy places" on hand you can draw from.  As long as you are not reciting "I'm in my happy place" through gritted teeth, this simple tool of having some sort of memory or imagined place that you can let your mind retreat to has benefits that go beyond any prescription.

Finding your "happy place"---that is the ticket.....


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