Stress can come from inside. It can be caused by our perception of events, rather than by the events themselves. A job transfer might be a horrible stress to one person, a magnificent opportunity to another. A lot depends on attitude.
But even when the stress is undeniably external — say, all your money was just skimmed — stress affects a host of changes inside our body. More specifically, stress in all its many forms interferes with the body’s production of three very important hormones that help you feel balanced and “normal”:
- Serotonin is the hormone that helps us get a good night’s sleep. Produced in the pineal gland deep inside your brain, serotonin controls our body clock by converting into melatonin and then converting back into serotonin over the course of a twenty-four-hour day. This process regulates our energy level, body temperature, and sleep cycle. The serotonin cycle synchronizes with the cycle of the sun, regulating itself according to exposure to daylight and darkness, which is why some people who are rarely exposed to the sun, such as those in northern climates, experience seasonal depression during the long, dark winter months — their serotonin production gets out of whack. Stress can throw it out of whack, too, and one result is the inability to sleep well. People under stress often experience a disturbed sleep cycle, manifesting itself as insomnia or an excessive need to sleep because the sleep isn’t productive.
- Noradrenaline is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands, related to the adrenaline that our body releases in times of stress to give us that extra chance at survival. Noradrenaline is related to our daily cycle of energy. Too much stress can disrupt our body’s production of noradrenaline, leaving a profound lack of energy and motivation to do anything. It’s that feeling you get when you just want to sit and stare at the television, even though you have a long list of things you absolutely have to do. If noradrenaline production is disrupted, you’ll probably just keep sitting there, watching television. You simply won’t have the energy to get anything done.
- Dopamine is a hormone linked to the release of endorphin in the brain. Endorphins are the hormones that help alleviate pain. Chemically, it is related to opiate substances like morphine and heroin, and, when injured, the body releases endorphin to help us function. When stress compromises our body’s ability to produce dopamine, it also compromises our body’s ability to produce endorphins, so, we become more sensitive to pain. Dopamine is responsible for that wonderful feeling; we get from doing things you enjoy. It makes us feel happy about life itself. Too much stress, too little dopamine, and nothing seems fun or pleasurable anymore. We feel flat. We might even feel depressed.
Stress can disrupt your body’s production of serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine. When the disruption of these chemicals results in depression, a physician may prescribe an antidepressant medication. Many antidepressant medications are designed specifically to regulate the production of serotonin, noradrenaline, and dopamine to re-establish the body’s equilibrium. If stress management techniques don’t work for your client, and you’ve worked hard to beat it back, your client may require medication. Refer this type of client to their physician.
Stress comes from the inside as well as the outside. Our perception of events and the influences (such as health habits) on our body and mind cause chemical changes within our body. Anybody who ever doubted the intricate connection of the mind and body need only look at what happens when people feel stress and worry. It’s all connected. (And therein lies a clue to what you can do to coach a client who is in distress).
Because there are so many forms of stress, stress can happen at any time. Stress is obvious when or experience a major life change, so expect stress when we move, lose someone we love, get married, change jobs, or experience a big change in financial status, diet, exercise habits, or health.
But we can also expect stress when we get a minor cold, have an argument with a friend, go on a diet, join a gym, stay out too late, drink too much, or even stay home with small kids all day when school is cancelled – or out for extended summer breaks.
Remember, stress often results from any kind of change in our normal routine. It also results from living a life that doesn’t make us happy; if this is true for your client, their whole life may be one long stress session. This client needs stress management now!
Americans don’t tend to take care of themselves, which results in stress on the body. Nearly 50 million Americans smoke. More than 60 percent are obese or overweight. One in four gets no exercise at all. According to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, the incidence of adult-onset (Type 2) diabetes has jumped almost 40 percent since 1990.
Why stress? What’s the point? Stress is a relatively complex interaction of external and internal processes caused by something relatively simple: the survival instinct.
And that’s important, even today!
Life is full of stimuli. We enjoy some of it. We don’t enjoy some of it. But our bodies are programmed, through millions of years of learning how to survive, to react in certain ways to stimulus that is extreme. We’ve evolved so that if you should suddenly find yourself in a dangerous situation — you step in front of a speeding car, you lose your balance and teeter on the edge of a cliff, you call your boss a grouch when he is standing right behind you — your body will react in a way that will best ensure your survival. You might move extra fast. You might pitch yourself back to safety. You might think fast and talk your way out of trouble.
Whether you are being chased around the savanna by a hungry lion or around the parking lot by an aggressive car salesman, your body recognizes an alarm and pours stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream.
Adrenaline produces what scientists call the “fight or flight” response (which will be discussed further in the next chapter). It gives you an extra boost of strength and energy so that you can turn around and fight that lion, if you think you will win (you’re probably better off pitted against the car salesman), or so that you can run like the dickens (also effective against car salesmen). More specifically, the “you” in these scenarios could easily be your client.
Adrenaline increases our heart rate and our breathing rate and sends blood straight to our vital organs so that they can work better — faster muscle response, quicker thinking, and so on. It also helps our blood to clot faster and draws blood away from our skin (if you should suffer a swipe of the lion’s claw, you won’t bleed as much) and also from our digestive tract (so you won’t throw up — no, it doesn’t always work). And cortisol flows through our body to keep the stress response responding if the stress continues.
Even back in the caveman days, people weren’t being chased by hungry lions all day long, every day, for weeks on end (or, if they were, they really should have considered moving to a different cave). Such extreme physical reactions aren’t meant to occur all the time. They are undeniably helpful during emergencies and other extreme situations, including fun situations like performing in a play or giving the toast at our best friend’s wedding. The stress reaction can help you think more quickly, react more accurately, and respond with clever, witty repartee or just the right joke to keep the audience entranced by a sparkling performance.
If our life seems stressful even though nothing is different than usual, chances are the culprit is sleep deprivation. Even if our serotonin cycle isn’t so, disrupted that you can’t sleep, plenty of people simply don’t sleep because they stay up late watching television. Most people really do need seven to eight hours of sleep to feel refreshed and to handle normal.
But if you were to experience the constant release of adrenaline and cortisol every day, eventually the feeling would get tiresome, quite literally. You’d start to experience exhaustion, physical pain, a decrease in our ability to concentrate and remember, frustration, irritability, insomnia, possibly even violent episodes. Our body would become out of balance because we aren’t designed to be under stress all the time.
But these days, life moves so quickly, technology allows us to do ten times more in a fraction of the time, and everybody wants everything yesterday, so stress happens. But too much stress will negate the effects of all that great technology — you won’t get any work done if you have no energy, no motivation, and keep getting sick.