Have you ever been in a difficult conversation and felt your heart rate increase, your palms get sweaty, and your eyes go blurry? Or have you been sitting alone and had a past memory pop up in your mind and all of a sudden your jaw and shoulders tense and you feel a little lightheaded. This is your body’s stress response system being activated in response to a threat.
The human body is designed to respond protectively in life threatening situations.
Imagine hiking in the woods and coming around a bend only to find yourself facing a giant grizzly bear. Your muscles tense, palms feel cold, your head feels dizzy, and your breathing becomes rapid. This response is caused by stress hormones being released in order to give your body the best possible chance at survival. Your muscles are alert and ready to respond, blood is being prioritized to your vital organs to sustain life, and your lungs are taking in extra oxygen. This bodily response happens before your mind makes a logical decision. You might run, you might freeze and be unable to move, or you might look the bear in the eye and start yelling at him.
Stress hormones can be released when we are not actually in danger.
This bodily response to threat can even happen when our life is not actually in danger but when we perceive danger. This can happen in conversations with friends, at work with coworkers, on a first date, while sitting around the dinner table with family, talking to your children, while journaling and remembering a frustrating situation, etc. And when danger is perceived on a regular, ongoing basis, the level of stress hormones in your body can build. In a sense the stress response system can go into overdrive. There are various reasons why this might happen. Life circumstances, childhood experiences, and traumatic events are some examples. Other things like cultural expectations, unjust social systems, or family dynamics can play a role as well. The problem is that our bodies were not created to physically process the release of stress hormones on a regular basis.
The buildup of stress hormones in our body can have toxic effects.
This is what is known as toxic stress. Being in a state of chronic stress is like feeling like your life is chronically in danger. This toxic state of being has been linked to increase blood pressure and thus increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. There is also increased risk of endocrine diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, and cancer. Sleep can be disrupted, which can then start to affect mental health.
Chronic stress makes it difficult to cope in positive ways.
Chronic stress can also be toxic to our lives if we do not cope in healthy ways. I don’t know about you, but when I’m not sleeping well, and my body feels tense, and I’m on high alert, my ability to positively cope becomes weak. In this state, feelings of fear, anger, sadness, grief, etc. can be stirred, and in desperation we can look for relief from our suffering in all sorts of venues. Some of the most destructive coping venues can include drug and alcohol use, sex, and excessive work. Other ways of problematic coping can include binging on food or video games or television, excessive worrying, withdrawing from social circles, perfectionistic tendencies leading to relational difficulties and shame, or various other irrational thinking.
The good news is that you do not need to let stress pollute your life.
There are concrete ways to learn to manage stress so its effect on your life is diminished. There are also ways to heal from traumatic emotional wounds, so that you no longer perceive threat when there is not an actual threat to your life. Both stress management and emotional healing can positively impact the amount of stress hormones being released in your body. Counseling is a wonderful way to address stress in your life, and gain support as you learn what it takes for you personally to decrease toxic stress. This can be deeply personal and meaningful work. I would be honored to explore this with you. Call me today, and let’s work together to help you find more calm and joy in your life.
Written by therapist Amie Bilson
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