The Psychological Effects Of Stress

Defining Stress

As the Adrenalin in our body rises – as we start to accumulate stress – our body experiences ever-increasing physiological reactions. The physiology relates to our physical responses. For example, a man might say, “I feel stressed. I feel stressed because of my stressful job.” This is interesting because I might say to that man, “Tell me about your job.”

He replies, “Well, I really like my job. I enjoy the people I work with, I’m well paid and I’ve got a good position.”

If the man says that to me, I say to him, “Well, you’ve got a lot of positive feelings about your job. What are the negative feelings? If you don’t have any negative feelings then you are actually not stressed. You only experience stress when you have negative emotion. Positive emotion is a non-problem status.”

He’ll reply, “Well, I’m busy.” I’ll say, “Well, okay. People who are busy – that’s a particular feeling – you can recognize when you are busy – but ‘busy’ comes and goes. It fluctuates. A negative emotion that you have in your life, the stress that you have in your life, perhaps comes from another source.”

Very often, I will explore with that client where his source of stress comes from. It may be related to health. It may be related to low self-esteem. It may be related to his relationship. It may be related to guilt that he has about not spending enough time with his children. But stress is always related to a negative emotion.

Another example is that of a house-wife at home who says she’s stressed and that may be true. She may be feeling bored, lonely, inadequate, helpless, overwhelmed or under-stimulated. Or she may feel put down or dismissed if she tries to tell her husband about these feelings and he says, “What have you got to worry about?” That sort of comment is likely to make her have even more bad feelings and it therefore increases her stress. Remember, stress is related to a negative emotion and so, yes, we have all sorts of people feeling stressed in all sorts of situations.

Stress is extremely subjective. It relates to how you experience it. The stress that we are focusing on in this chapter is the stress that we experience in a life drama – that means a lot of stress. I am referring to a body that is experiencing a lot of stress and that can come about through two different ways. It can come about because of one particular life event that causes your body to flood with Adrenalin – for example, the car accident or the Tsunami.

Or you can also experience a life drama because of what I label, ‘relentless stress’. This is an accumulation of stress that occurs over time so there is no particular major event, just a gradual build up. It is episodes that occur or negative emotion that you experience relentlessly – perhaps in your job or your relationship. If you have a build up of negative emotion and it goes on for a period of time without a break, then you will also become stressed and the feeling is the same. It is to do with an accumulation of and then a flooding of Adrenalin.

Symptoms of Stress

When you have an extreme level of Adrenalin in your body, whether it is caused by the one event or whether it is the accumulation of events, your muscles become tighter and tighter and this eventually results in you having physiological responses. Heart palpitations, the chest, neck and shoulders are always involved – you end up feeling quite hunched and very tight around your neck and shoulders. Your muscles will also ache.

Whenever you are experiencing stress, one of the common symptoms is muscle ache, especially in the thighs, arms. Your body becomes fatigued because your muscles ache. It is like you have been carrying heavy shopping for a long time and you can’t put it down. Even after you have put the heavy shopping down, your muscles still ache because they have been working and tightened for a very long time.

Your breathing is affected. The reason that your breathing alters is simply because your chest wall is a huge muscle. As our muscles constrict and become tighter, the chest wall becomes like a tight, rigid sheet of muscle. As a result of this, the lungs that are inside this chest wall no longer have the ability to expand like they normally do – they are only expanding a little bit and are therefore not taking in the quantity of air that you would normally take in.

After a while the brain sends a signal down to the lungs, “This body needs a little bit more oxygen. Please breathe a bit more deeply.” Outwardly, you end up sighing. This forces your chest wall to open to a greater expansion and that is what the (sighing) response is. When you are stressed, you tend to sigh more or you yawn more because yawning has the same impact. Yawning is when you take in air and deliberately force your chest wall to expand. Again, these are symptoms of stress.

Other people will notice that they do not sleep well when they are stressed. Of course not. When you are stressed, your body has got a lot of Adrenalin in it. The purpose of Adrenalin is to keep you alert, to keep you awake, to keep you on guard. You are not supposed to sleep when you are on guard duty and so, when you are stressed, you will not be able to settle and you will not be able to sleep because your brain is thinking and checking, “Where is the danger?”

As your stress increases, you are producing more and more Adrenalin. The Adrenalin that you are producing is making your brain think more and more, “Where is the danger?” A good analogy of this is the meerkat on sentry duty. It is constantly looking around, checking for danger. This is how the brain becomes. It thinks, “Where is the danger?” And so the Adrenalin that is genuinely in your body is causing your brain to become more alert, more on guard, worrying. That is why Sensitive People, who always have a lot of Adrenalin in their body, tend to be worriers. The Adrenalin in their body is making their brain think, “Where is the danger?” And then of course, the brain begins to think, “Well, it could be this. It could be that.” You are picturing what the danger might be and your body is thereby producing more Adrenalin.

This situation becomes the anxious cycle. The anxious cycle, when it continues, eventually will cause your Parasympathetic Nervous System to break down. The Parasympathetic Nervous System becomes so exhausted by trying to restore your body to calm that it no longer functions. Now, when you are thinking about worrying thoughts, your body is producing Adrenalin even when you are trying to restore yourself to calm and you are trying to tell yourself – your Cortex, “No, no, no, there is no danger. It’s okay. Settle down. You’ll get through this. You are a big girl. Other people have experienced things like this before.” This is the way we talk to ourselves. This is our self-soothing talk.

However, when your Parasympathetic Nervous System breaks down, even as you are trying to calm yourself down, you end up producing more and more Adrenalin and this is when we have relentless stress and we can no longer restore to calm. That is when we really experience the feeling of being traumatized. I am using the word ‘trauma’ for the first time – that is how we feel when we are experiencing a life drama. We feel traumatized. Our body is flooding with Adrenalin and it actually feels as though we are in a car accident but the car is still rolling. We don’t know what the outcome is going to be. That is how it can feel when you are traumatized.

At that point in time, as well as all the physical reactions that your body has, there are other things that start to happen. The Autonomic Nervous System in the body starts to collapse. The Autonomic Nervous System is the nervous system that looks after all the functions over which we have no conscious control. (It is the Central Nervous System that we are able to have conscious thought about. For example, movement – blinking and walking.) So the Autonomic Nervous System looks after our gut and digestion, it looks after our bowels and evacuation, it looks after our reproductive system. These are all the areas of our body that continue to function without us having any conscious control over them.

But, when we are feeling stressed, even a little bit stressed, what do we start to notice? We begin to have tummy upsets and when we have a lot of stress, these upsets become more pronounced. Some people end up with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Ulcerative Colitis. These are quite major gut and bowel problems. If you are a little bit stressed or a little bit nervous, you might have loose stools and need to go to the toilet quite a lot. But if you have stress over a long period of time, you end up with major gut problems and bowel problems.

Our whole reproductive system can be affected. It is well known that if a woman is stressed, her menstrual cycle might alter. What we now know, because of the advance of medical technology, is that men are also very affected by stress. With this advance of medical technology and photography, we know that men’s sperm is highly affected by stress and men can experience a lot of abnormal sperm and low sperm count because their Autonomic Nervous System is being interrupted.

The other major parts of our Autonomic Nervous System are our Sympathetic and our Parasympathetic Nervous System. These are the areas of our system that look after the recovery and the restoration of the body to calm after stress. And so as that breaks down, so our body experiences more and more stress without being able to recover.

To summarize, when we are experiencing stress, the first thing that starts to happen as our Autonomic Nervous System breaks down is that we have a break down of our immune system. We have concentrated on the Autonomic Nervous System but the other thing that happens is that we have a break down of our immune system. As we become more stressed, we start to develop more colds, flus, viruses, skin conditions, your Eczema – if you suffer from it – might crop up again. Your Shingles or your Glandular Fever might return.

The Importance of Serotonin

The next thing that occurs is a decrease of the chemical, Serotonin. Your Serotonin depletes as your Adrenalin increases. Serotonin is our ‘good feeling’ chemical. It is a very important chemical. Serotonin is a Neurotransmitter that we have in our brain and our Serotonin is necessary for us to feel good and to think good. Serotonin enables electrical impulses to jump across all the millions of neurons in our brain. Therefore, a lot of Serotonin equals a lot of good thought. If you are with friends and you are feeling really good, you have a lot of Serotonin and you can do a lot of brainstorming. When you are feeling really good, you can get on with things and you are inspired to get going with the projects that you want to do because the increased Serotonin means you can think well.

With the depletion of Serotonin, you find that your mood drops. You become flat, despondent, unmotivated, can’t be bothered, joyless. When you are undergoing a lot of stress, you might still force yourself to do things that have to be done but they don’t give you pleasure anymore. These are the feelings of a lowered Serotonin level in your brain.

Your thinking is also affected. Your thinking is affected inasmuch as it now starts to become inaccurate. You now begin to have irrational thinking. You may not know this at the time, but afterwards, when you recover a bit from your stress, you can look back and think, “I wasn’t thinking rationally at that time.” Our thinking becomes inaccurate, irrational and anxious. The reason why our thinking becomes more anxious again at this time is purely biological. When you have got a lot of Serotonin, that hormone is a neurotransmitter in the brain that allows electrical impulses (which are thoughts) to jump across neurons. When you have decreased levels of Serotonin, the electrical impulses don’t jump as far. They are not able to jump in different directions and so your thinking becomes more rigid – your thoughts have got nowhere else to go.

Because of that, they come to a stop and that is why, when you are feeling down, you actually feel stuck in your brain. You feel thick. You feel blocked. You can’t think straight. How often we say that to ourselves, “I can’t think straight.” You do not feel like getting going with a project you have to do or the next task you have to do – it might just even be cooking a meal. You just can not be bothered. These are all signs of lowered Serotonin.

Unfortunately, what happens is that these electrical impulses have to go somewhere. And so they then start to go around in the area of the brain where they have just come from, which gives the person a recurring thought. This is what dwelling is. This is what ruminating is. When we are feeling down, we dwell on things. We actually do not dwell on things when we are feeling good. Of course, when we dwell on things, we are in fact experiencing the same, anxious cycle because the thought we are having is a bad thought. Because we are having a bad thought, our body is creating more Adrenalin and so that cycle continues. It is the reason why, with lowered Serotonin and with this inaccurate and irrational thinking, we do in fact become more and more anxious and our brain is increasing our levels of Adrenalin in our body.

These lowered levels of Serotonin and impaired thinking cause us to have lowered self-esteem. Self-esteem is a thinking process. As well as feeling bad, we also think badly about ourselves. We have continuous thoughts about how bad we are, how useless we are, how pathetic we are or how uninteresting we are. These ongoing thoughts, in turn, create more and more Adrenalin.

An easy way to remember the relationship between Serotonin and Adrenalin is to consider your hands as two platforms. The left hand is the Adrenalin hand and the right hand is the Serotonin hand. Remember that these platforms move up and down as though they are a counterweight. As Adrenalin rises, Serotonin drops. And as Adrenalin drops, Serotonin rises. Effectively, the label, ‘self-esteem’ could also be placed on the right hand. Your Serotonin and your self-esteem are very connected and they are both strongly influenced by the presence of Adrenalin.

For example, you might have a good day spending time with friends. When you get home, you are feeling good. Your Serotonin is elevated, you are feeling good about yourself and you are feeling good about life. You do not feel stressed at all. The next day, you might be organizing a dinner-party with the same friends. As you are organizing the dinner party, things go a bit wrong and you discover that you haven’t put the wine in the fridge, you haven’t got enough meat and the potatoes that you wanted to put on the barbeque turn out to be rotten. Your stress rises, your Adrenalin levels rise, you are feeling stressed and now your levels of Serotonin have depleted. Because of that, you start all the ruminating thoughts of, “Oh, I’m so hopeless. I should have done that before. Why didn’t I check? I’m hopeless at organizing barbeques and my friends aren’t going to be happy. And they probably won’t even turn up anyway. I’m so pathetic.”

All of these unnecessary, negative thoughts that you have are simply because of the imbalance of the chemicals. Our personal stress is so significantly affected by the way that we think and once we realize this and visualize this, we can work out that if we can change the way we think, if we can change the way that we see a situation and change our viewpoint of it, we are going to change the way that we feel. We are responsible for the way that we feel, regardless of what happens to us in life. We can manage our stress levels and we can work out what we are going to do next by altering the way that we feel.