The Effects of Stress – The Mind-Body Connection

Your mind, emotions and physical body are very closely linked. The workings of the mind can have direct physical consequences as the exercise below demonstrates.

Try this exercise

-Close your eyes
-Think back to an event in which you were upset, sad or anxious about something.
-Breathe in deeply and allow yourself to feel those emotions
-When you are feeling them fully, then become aware of your body. How is your body responding to those emotions?
-See if you are aware of any of the following: facial flushing, tension and tightness of the muscles, rapid heart beat, quick and shallow breathing, shaking, sweating, dry mouth, lump in throat, lightness or heaviness
-Now, keeping your focus on the same event, adjust your spine so you are now sitting upright.
-Consciously relax your shoulders, tilt your face slightly upward and smile

Notice how you are feeling now. Did you find that the feelings of upset, sadness lifted somewhat?

Most, if not all of us, have experienced stress at some time. So what exactly is stress? For it is a very common word and widely used to describe many situations. It can be difficult to define but here are a couple of ideas:
–          stress is the resultant effects that occur when pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope
–          stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other demands placed upon them

However what is it that determines whether the effects are positive or negative? Positive stress can bring forth creativity, enthusiasm, or good performance. Negative stress is detrimental, demotivating and in some way contributes to deterioration of health.

Stress can be thought of as having three components:
–          the stressor – the particular situation that triggers a response
–          the perception – your interpretation of the situation. For example being made redundant; one person will see it as a catastrophe with a loss of income and lack of security;  another person may see redundancy as a positive thing, the push they needed to leave a job they hated, or the opportunity to set up their own business
–          the stress response – your body’s physical response and your emotional response

Any threat to the physical, emotional or psychological state of balance triggers an in-built protective mechanism – the flight or fight response. The sympathetic nervous system which controls automatic functions such as breathing and blood pressure, digestion etc. is triggered and the body becomes flooded with the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenalin. These two hormones have the following effects:
–          speed up the heart rate and breathing – ready for you to take action
–          Provide a quick burst of energy – ready for you to take action
–          Increase your alertness and narrow your attention
–          Move blood to muscles and away from non-essential areas such as digestion and reproductive functions.
–          Boost the immune system
–          Lower sensitivity to pain
All very necessary when we were living a cave man lifestyle! However today we don’t need to run away, we just stand there and absorb the effects. Consequently people tend to get stuck in the high arousal state because they are not expending that energy their bodies just racked up.

Prolonged activation of the sympathetic nervous system and ongoing secretion of stress hormones will take their toll and have a negative effect on the body. These are some of the long term effects

–          Reduced nutrient absorption
–          Weakening of the immune system
–          Raised cholesterol and triglyceride levels
–          Raised blood pressure
–          Poorer memory and weaker concentration
–          Lowered thyroid function
–          Reduced wound healing
–          Decreased bone density
–          Decreased muscle tissue
–          Increase in deposition of fat around the middle

There can also be changes in behaviour as the individual tries to deal with the negative effects of stress such as
–          the physical sensations (tension , headaches, butterflies)
–          the distressing emotional states (depression, anger, shame, anxiety)
–          the distressing psychological consequences(nightmares, negative thinking)

Altered behaviours might include:

Eating disorders
Loss of appetite
Poor diet

Sleep disturbance

Alcohol abuse
Drug abuse

Accident proneness
Eat / walk / talk faster
Low productivity
Poor eye contact