Stress is a part of life, and it can be a motivator or it can be a deadly menace. If you are stressed about an exam or need to be at church on time to get married, it can be a good thing. But if you’re a caregiver and have been stressed for years, it can be terrible for your health.
First described by Walter Cannon in the 1920s, the fight-or-flight response, also called the acute stress response, kicks in when we are presented with danger or an emergency. Our brains react quickly to keep us safe by preparing the body for action. Hunters who were responsible for killing game to provide food for their tribe and the animals being hunted experienced the fight-or-flight response on a regular basis. Today, because of the stressful world we live in, the fight-or- flight response is more commonly triggered by psychological threats than physical ones, such as an argument with a spouse, demanding bosses, out-of-control drivers, road rage, etc.
In the physiological response to stress, pupils dilate to sharpen vision, and heart rate and blood pressure increase to accelerate the delivery of oxygen to fuel muscles and critical organs. Blood flow is diverted from non-critical areas, such as the gastrointestinal tract, to the critical areas, such as the heart, skeletal muscles, and liver.
The liver releases glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. Glucose is for immediate energy; fat is needed when the fight-or-flight response lasts longer than expected. Bronchial tubes dilate to maximize the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
When the body is in a constant state of “emergency alert” due to chronic stress such as caregiving, the adrenal glands—the small walnut shaped glands that sit on top of your kidneys—get “stuck” in the on position. When this happens, the whole system goes into chronic fight-or-flight. Glucose that is dumped into your blood stream goes unused, so your body has to produce an enormous amount of insulin to handle it. Eventually, this can result in hypoglycemia or diabetes. Fat that is dumped into your blood also goes unused, so it clogs your arteries, leading to cardiovascular disease. If you drink three or more cups of coffee every day, the stress hormone cortisol becomes elevated, which can set you up for countless health problems, including poor quality of sleep, impaired immunity, and age-related deterioration.
The key is to be alert to stress triggers, recognize that you are stressed, and discover ways that help keep you on an even keel.
If you experience any of the following symptoms, it’s time for you to take charge of your stress before you succumb to a serious illness or disease.
- Fatigue and sluggishness
- Difficulty falling asleep and or staying asleep
- Chronic colds or other health issues
- Suicidal thoughts
- Dependence on drugs, both recreational and pharmaceutical
- Too much alcohol and/or tobacco consumption
- Irritability, anger and/or anxiety
- Weight control issues including abdominal fat or weight loss
- Heart palpitations
- High blood pressure
- Mental fog or forgetfulness
- Headaches or back pain
- Jaw and/or tooth pain could indicate that you are clenching your jaw at night
- Unexplained hair loss
- Stomach pain or chronic diarrhea
- Twitching in a facial muscle
- Holding your breath, or taking sudden deep breaths because you have forgotten to breathe
- Painful adrenal band across the kidney region
- Skin irritations
If you want to learn more about stress and how you can prevent it, deal with it and conquer it, read 12 quick energy and stress fixes to use throughout the holiday season. . . and all year long.
For a resource guide containing 20 modalities for feeling less stressed, happier and healthier read: Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Available on Amazon and at all bookstores that sell quality books.