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Are you feeling stressed out today?

Updated: Aug 19, 2023

What do you feel like when you are experiencing stress? Is it excitement? Is it dread? Is it sleepiness? Is it discomfort, anger and anxiety? The stress response is actually all of the above and more.

Stress or stressing out is conventionally thought of as something that is unwanted, uncomfortable and even unwarranted when in fact, sometimes we are experiencing eu-stress, "eu" as a prefix in latin for 'good' where we are alert, in an optimal amount of arousal in our sympathetic nervous system, and we are performing our tasks on a high level. This is the Yerkes-Dodson law of stress/arousal and performance.


While the above are two states of the sympathetic nervous system, on the opposite end of the spectrum of the stress response continuum, though, there is a state of our nervous system where we are not responding to any external stressor, good or bad. We are for example deep in sleep and the parasympathetic nervous system, characterized by digest, and recovery, is fully online. What we usually refer to as the "stressed out" state of the stress response is actually only when the sympathetic nervous system has been kicked into overdrive, beyond the optimal level of arousal and especially for a length of time where the body's resources are becoming too depleted and homeostasis is difficult to achieve.


All three of these nervous system states are a part of normal human functioning; the only caveat is that the sympathetic nervous system was only meant to be motivated into overdrive fight, flight, freeze (and fawn) for a short amount of time, such as when a sabre-tooth tiger is coming to threaten our lives!

We are then motivated to run, fight, or blend into the environment when we are able to escape danger. It is a survival mechanism completely normal to every mammalian nervous system.


The problem appears when we have these survival responses activated too much and/or too long.


According to the Cleveland clnic, some common signs of stress include: [1]

  • Changes in mood

  • Clammy or sweaty palms

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Diarrhea

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Digestive problems

  • Dizziness

  • Feeling anxious

  • Frequent sickness

  • Grinding teeth

  • Headaches

  • Low energy

  • Muscle tension, especially in the neck and shoulders

  • Physical aches and pains

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Trembling [1]


When our nervous system gives us feelings and thoughts of "stressing out" we often feel relatively high rates of irritability, fear, and perhaps anger and sadness. We may overwork or underwork and experience frustration and feelings of exhaustion and burnout; we may also increase participation in addictive habits to escape a feeling of inability to cope.


We may sometimes fight and behave with irritability and anger with our loved ones with disproportionate intensity. Sometimes our flight response may be kicked in and we use all kinds of habitual avoidance strategies. We may also compartmentalize these feelings so much so that we may not even be able to identify the stress at the moment. I often have clients notice that they are "numbed out". Their rational brain may think everything is OK, but their bodies have kicked in an avoidance coping skill of dissociation in order to cope with the feelings of exhaustion, burnout, and inability to cope. Sometimes we may freeze or fawn, collapse within, and behave outwardly in a people-pleasing manner that may be not truly authentic to ourselves.


According to Elizabeth Scott [2], some tangible signs of our nervous system on overload status can be:

  • Psychological signs such as difficulty concentrating, worrying, anxiety, and trouble remembering

  • Emotional signs such as being angry, irritated, moody, or frustrated

  • Physical signs such as high blood pressure, changes in weight, frequent colds or infections, and changes in the menstrual cycle and libido

  • Behavioral signs such as poor self-care, not having time for the things you enjoy, or relying on drugs and alcohol to cope [2]


Coping Skills to Practice in Regulating our Stress Response


According to the NIMH [3], some coping skills that may help are

  • Keep a journal.

  • Download an app that provides relaxation exercises (such as deep breathing or visualization) or tips for practicing mindfulness, which is a psychological process of actively paying attention to the present moment.

  • Exercise, and make sure you are eating healthy, regular meals.

  • Stick to a sleep routine, and make sure you are getting enough sleep.

  • Avoid drinking excess caffeine such as soft drinks or coffee.

  • Identify and challenge your negative and unhelpful thoughts.

  • Reach out to your friends or family members who help you cope in a positive way.[3]

Treatments for Stress



In treating a stress-related disorder, we must ascertain whether this is an acute response or a chronic response. Once there is an understanding of where the root causes are, we can target treatment accordingly. Treatment may range from learning new internal self-regulation skills to stabilizing external circumstances such as in our relationships and careers to find a good enough sense of emotional homeostasis and safety. Examples of coping skills may include communicating and reinforcing proper boundaries, mindfulness, and relaxation techniques that promote para-sympathetic responses. With chronic stress, the nervous system may have undergone changes from long-term over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system which sometimes presents as insomnia or reduced ability to self-regulate. In these cases, the sympathetic nervous system is a bit "stuck" and not as fluent in toggling back to rest/recover/digest mode of the parasympathetic. Depending on the severity of impact of the chronic stress activation on the nervous system, medication and alternative medicines in conjunction with therapy can also be helpful.


Psychotherapy

In treating stress-related disorders, many clinicians use modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). CBT focuses on examining and exploring the client's beliefs (cognitive) to facilitate the creation of preferred behavior changes/goals. MBSR utilizes meditation and mindfulness to reduce sympathetic nervous system responses. More often than not, stressors may come from triggers of old neuro-networks from unprocessed historical trauma. Parts work from the Internal Family System and EMDR are trauma-processing modalities that can alleviate distressing symptoms of a stress-related disorder. EMDR in particular has had now over thirty years of neuro-scientific research data supporting the efficacy of this treatment modality.


Medication

Medication may sometimes be prescribed to address some specific symptoms that are related to stress. Your family doctor as well as a psychiatrist would be able to assess and determine if this would be right for you.


Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Some complementary approaches that are often helpful relieving symptoms from stress-related disorders are acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, yoga, and meditation.[4]


I wish you peace and healing in your journey.

[1] (2021, January 28) https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress

Stress: Signs, symptoms, management & prevention. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11874-stress [2] Elizabeth Scott, P. D. (2022, November 7). How is stress affecting my health? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/stress-and-health-3145086 [3] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). I'm so stressed out! fact sheet. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/so-stressed-out-fact-sheet [4] Elizabeth Scott, P. D. (2022, November 7). How is stress affecting my health? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/stress-and-health-3145086

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