The Stress Response—good or bad?

Montrose Daily Press [August 14, 2016] Kathryn R. Burke

Stress happens when we are faced with a situation that causes a strong, emotional reaction. Sometimes stress can be positive, provide a little physical or mental boost, like when you are anticipating an athletic event or psyching yourself up to give a public presentation. Sometimes it can be annoying, but short-lived, like a fight with a spouse or partner, bad day at work, coming up short at the grocery check-out and having to put things back. But, when stress is ongoing with little or no relief in sight, it has long-term physical and mental consequences.

Human beings have a built-in fight-or-flight mechanism. This stress response initiates behaviors and physiological changes designed to increase survival: increased awareness, improved cognition, and even a state of euphoria.

Here’s how it works. The hypothalamus (part of the brain that regulates endocrine activity), and the pituitary gland instruct the adrenal glands to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline (increases heart rate, elevates blood pressure, boosts energy) and cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’ (increases glucose in the bloodstream, alters immune system, suppresses the digestive system). The alarm mechanism triggered by these three glands, known collectively as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) Axis, initiates chemical, physical, emotional, and mental reactions your body that control mood, motivation and fear and helps you choose between fists or feet.

This is helpful if you’re facing a tiger about to attack. It’s helpful if you’re about to compete in a triathlon. When the stressful event is over, hormone levels return to normal (assuming the tiger didn’t eat you).

The stress response is not helpful when you can’t turn it off. Chronic stress constitutes a serious health risk. When it’s continuous, and you face it day in and day out, chronic stress can affect brain size and function. It can actually alter the brain if you don’t get it under control. A constant flow of cortisol and adrenalin will cause frustration, anger, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, weight gain (especially around the middle), sleeplessness, loneliness and isolation, and finally, memory and cognition impairment.

So how do we turn it off? We don’t really. When it’s ‘good,’ we use it. When it’s ‘bad stress,’ we try to manage it—concentrate on positives, subjugate negatives. Remain calm and steady, be flexible yet firm, curb emotions, regulate feelings. Unfortunately, in this instance, we don’t turn it off so much as absorb it, and that in itself is stressful.

Caregivers are especially vulnerable. They are often frustrated, almost always anxious, and often really angry. Sometimes a meltdown is inevitable. When enough is too much, and you experience rage and resentment, you might let go and vent those negative feelings. Picture a pressure cooker. If the pressure gets too high—the lid blows off. “You did this to yourself!” (I said this to my husband, whose neuropathy was likely brought on by an insatiable sweet tooth. He was pouring chocolate syrup on a banana—and the table, the chair, the carpet. I blew my lid.)

Meltdowns happen, but less often if you learn to manage stress in a healthy way: calm the mind (relaxation techniques), replenish depleted energy (sleep and diet), and rejuvenate the body (exercise). I often combat stress by taking a long walk—alone—in nature, preferably by water. The physical exercise calms my nerves and soothes my body. Paying attention to my surroundings and letting go of all other thoughts, especially those directly related to caregiving, eases my mind and brings peace and a sense of near-euphoria; I’m relieved of what felt like a burden just a short time before. I simply can’t feel bad when I feel so good.

When I return to caregiver duty, I am refreshed and I project that calmness to my husband. Actions mirror emotions and feelings. My behavior directs his reactions. And he responds accordingly. Peace reigns.

Kathryn R Burke is the author of The Caregiver’s Journey, Navigating the Path and The Caregiver’s Journey, Building Your Care Team. Both books are available at caregiver-journey.com, which also lists current speaking engagements and book signings.