5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Stress

Goya_1828_ExecutionPioHill Stress is often defined as entirely harmful. Nary a moment goes by without someone reminding us that “stress is bad for you!” The fact is, stress is good, in at least five different ways.

1: Stress is a survival mechanism of the human species  

We cannot function well without at least some amount of stress, which alerts us to the fact that something or someone requires our attention. Anxiety is not turned off or on by a rocker switch. Stress produces its effects along a continuum. At appropriate levels, it keeps people engaged in their world.

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Eat Your Way Out of Stress: Orthomolecularity

NabobPass_EN-US212192238The food most of us consume today is not as rich in nutritional value as it once was due to the significant industrial processing it must undergo to be preserved, packaged and shipped and to the significant effects of pollution in the air, water and soil. Therefore, the human body, especially in heavily industrialized societies, ends up receiving far fewer of the vitamins and minerals that are necessary for optimal health. Moreover, additional energy expenditures and therefore caloric consumption are often required to cope with the stress caused by environmental, situational, and psychological agents.

Thus, the use of nutritional supplements, especially vitamins and herbal extracts, has blossomed into a significant industry and constitutes an increasingly large share of how we obtain these essential nutrients. Generic symptoms such as fatigue, headache, and mood changes are now being treated not only with prescribed or over the counter chemical preparations but also through the consumption of mostly unregulated food supplements.

The Good

As far back as 1968, two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling pioneered scientific research on the beneficial effects of vitamin supplements and coined the term orthomolecular to describe a nutrition-focused therapy that included large doses of food supplements. His research built on the previous work of two Canadian psychiatrists, Abram Hoffer and Humphrey Osmond, who in 1952 had begun to use very large doses of vitamins, in particular those of the B group, for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Pauling went one step further by attempting to demonstrate the effectiveness of taking very large doses of vitamins in prevention and in therapy. His studies focused on the antiradical effects of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and of the liposoluble vitamins A and E in the stimulation of the immune system. Pauling’s view of the benefits of orthomolecularity launched the modern production and distribution of vitamins, minerals, herbs, or products made from plants, animal parts, algae, seafood, or yeasts.

The Bad and the Ugly

Lately, attention is also being paid to the increasingly worrisome phenomenon of self-medication with unregulated nutritional supplements, such as caffeine-laden energy drinks. A 16-ounce can of an energy drink may contain 13 teaspoons of sugar and the amount of caffeine found in four or more colas. Moreover, this potent mixture of sugars and stimulants is often mixed with alcohol. These products, whose catchy names are Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster and Full Throttle, are increasingly popular among teenagers and young adults, even as young as 10-12 years of age. Unfortunately, these concoctions of uppers and downers have dangerous, even life-threatening, effects on blood pressure, heart rate and brain function, according to a recently released report by the Mayo Clinic’s Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

Abuse in Childhood May Mean Shorter Life

aavanGogh_1885_AutumnLandscapeAccording to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the experience of verbal, physical, sexual abuse, or severe family dysfunction, such as an incarcerated, mentally ill, or substance-abusing family member, domestic violence, or absence of a parent because of divorce or separation, is directly linked to serious problems in adulthood, which may include substance abuse, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and premature death.

The combination of risky behaviors such as substance abuse, the effects of severe depression on variables such as suicide, and the incidence of deadly diseases such as diabetes and cancer contribute to an elevated risk of early death in adults who experienced abuse and dysfunctional family environments. More specific studies have confirmed that individuals with six or more adverse childhood experiences were almost twice as likely (1.7  times) to die before age 75 and 2.4 times more likely to die before age 65 years, i.e. below to well below normal life expectancies.

The CDC analyzed information from 26,229 adults in five US states (Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington) using the 2009 ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) module of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), which is operated by state health departments in cooperation with the CDC. The results of the analysis show that 59.4% of the interviewed reported having at least one adverse childhood experience, and 8.7% reported five or more.

The prevalence of each adverse childhood experience ranged from a high of 29.1% for household substance abuse to a low of 7.2% for having an incarcerated family member. Over one quarter (25.9%) of respondents reported having experienced verbal abuse, 14.8% reported physical abuse, and 12.2% reported sexual abuse. In measures of severe family dysfunction, 26.6% reported separated or divorced parents, 19.4% reported that they had lived with someone who was depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal, and 16.3% reported witnessing domestic violence.

The analysis reiterates the risk for long-term impact on health and mortality of childhood abuse, stress and trauma. Numerous studies (Sansone & Poole, Ozer, Best, et al., Heim, Newport, et al., Bremner et al., to cite only a few of the most recent) have confirmed the positive and significant correlations between childhood physical abuse, emotional abuse, and witnessing violence and the number of psychophysiological and pain disorders in adulthood.

The 8 Best Defenses Against Stress and Those to Avoid

Earth at Stresshacker.com When we become aware of a stressor, the rising level of anxiety triggers an automatic psychological process of self-protection. This automatic defense mechanism often results in an immediate reduction of anxiety and therefore is perceived as “working” well. However, we may not be fully aware of what these defenses are and how they operate. There are 7 levels and as many as 31 different types of defense against stress, and we have a choice in selecting the ones that are most appropriate to the circumstances. And, of course, they are all available immediately and free to use.

Selecting the best defense gives us a better approach to handling the stressor and its consequences. As we make adjustments to our response, we can choose a different defense at a higher level and see how much or how little of it we need to protect ourselves against the discomfort of anxiety. We may also use more than one defense mechanism at one time. Let’s get to know what they are after the jump.

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How To Deal With 6 Personalities Under Stress

Pisa%20-%20Piazza%20dei%20Miracoli%20-%202How does each personality style tend to handle a significant stressor? And, if we happen to be the spouse, significant other, sibling or friend of any of these, what is the best way to interact with them while they are under severe stress? To answer these questions, it is necessary to understand their most relevant characteristics, the most likely meaning of the stressor to each style, the most likely feelings or responses evoked among other people that interact with them, and tips on the management of this interaction.

The Dependent Personality Style

Relevant Characteristics Under Stress: May become needy, demanding, clingy. May be unable to reassure self and will seek reassurance from others.
Meaning Attributed to the Stressor: Threat of being abandoned and left all alone. 
Feelings Evoked: May make others feel powerful and needed. May also make them feel overwhelmed and annoyed.
Management Tips: Reassure within limits, mobilize other supports, reward personal efforts toward independence, avoid the temptation to withhold all help.

The Obsessive Personality Style

Relevant Characteristics Under Stress: Meticulous, orderly; likes to feel in control; very concerned with right/wrong approach.
Meaning Attributed to the Stressor: Dangerous loss of control over body, emotions, impulses.
Feelings Evoked: May elicit admiration for their attention to detail; may also provoke anger—a “battle of wills” due to their perfectionistic approach.
Management Tips: Provide choices to increase their sense of control, provide detailed information, focus on a collaborative approach that avoids the battle of wills.

The Histrionic Personality Style

Relevant Characteristics Under Stress: Entertaining, melodramatic.
Meaning Attributed to the Stressor: May fear loss of love or loss of attractiveness.
Feelings Evoked: May make others feel anxiety, impatience, off-putting dramatic gestures.
Management Tips: Try to strike a balance between warmth and formality, maintain clear boundaries, encourage them to discuss fears, avoid confronting them head-on.

The Masochistic Personality Style

Relevant Characteristics Under Stress: “Perpetual victim,” self-sacrificing martyr, may expect negative outcomes.
Meaning Attributed to the Stressor: May view the stressor as conscious or unconscious punishment.
Feelings Evoked: May provoke anger, hate, frustration, helplessness, self-doubt.
Management Tips: Avoid excessive encouragement, share their pessimism (albeit without agreeing).

The Paranoid Personality Style

Relevant Characteristics Under Stress: Guarded, distrustful, quick to blame or counterattack, sensitive to slights.
Meaning Attributed to the Stressor: Proof that the world is against them.
Feelings Evoked: Anger, feeling attacked or accused, defensiveness. 
Management Tips: Avoid assuming a defensive stance, acknowledge their feelings without disputing them, maintain interpersonal distance, do not confront irrational fears.

The Narcissistic Personality Style

Relevant Characteristics Under Stress: Arrogant, devaluing, vain, demanding.
Meaning Attributed to the Stressor: May view it as a threat to self-concept of perfection and invulnerability; may be shame evoking.
Feelings Evoked: May cause others to feel anger, a desire to counterattack, activate feelings of inferiority.
Management Tips: Resist the desire to challenge their sense of entitlement, provide opportunities for them to show off, offer appropriate advice if requested.

What Would You Do?

777 Cockpit at Stresshacker.comThe airliner, heavy with fuel and filled with passengers, is climbing toward its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, having taken off less than twenty minutes earlier and more than one hour behind schedule. The captain and the second officer are completing their post-takeoff routines and anticipating a smooth ride; the weather forecast is for clear skies ahead and relatively little turbulence. The steady muffled roar of the four jet engines envelops the aircraft.

In the cockpit, a large amber light begins flashing on the upper center quadrant of the dashboard. After a few seconds, the light goes off. An automatic correction has taken place, initiated by the onboard navigation computers. Other lights flash briefly and then go off. To the uninitiated eye, seemingly at random.

Suddenly a bright red warning light flashes in the section of the dashboard that groups all engine functions. The cockpit crew appears to pay scant attention to it. The red flashing continues. If you were the pilot of the aircraft, what would you do?

  1. Put a dark cloth over the light. Too much flashing can be distracting and one simply cannot chase after every light. Get busy doing flight path calculations.
  2. Relax. Take a break and go get some coffee from the galley with the copilot. The light may be off by the time you all come back to the cockpit.
  3. Ignore the light. Look at some other part of the dashboard where there are no lights. A lot of lights come and go. It will probably shut itself off, eventually.
  4. Respond to the message that the light is giving. Check engine functions and take the appropriate steps to address the problem.

If you answered 1, 2 or 3, your stress level is probably very high. If you answered 1, your preferred mode of dealing with high stress is by covering it up. If you answered 2, your strategy consists of using various relaxation techniques hoping that stress will take care of itself somehow, without addressing its cause. If you answered 3, your favorite approach consists of denying the existence of high stress, preferring instead to believe that there are plenty of times when you are really not stressed at all.

If you answered 4, you understand that the amber and red lights (representing mild or severe stress reactions) are occurring as an indication that something of importance (a significant stressor) requires your immediate attention. By acknowledging the valuable message that the stress reaction (the cockpit light) is giving you, you begin to address its cause, the stressor (the engine problem). This is the essence of effective stress management: managing the cause of the stress, instead of simply mitigating (or covering up, or denying) the symptoms.

How do you react to the warning signs of stress? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Check out Stresshacker’s StressWise program: stress coaching, online webinars, and downloads for making sense of stress, and for better stress and stressor management.

Stresshack #4: Cognitive Stress Management

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that you feel that you can never feel safe again. How strongly do you feel this?
VICTIM: I know that for a fact. I will never ever feel safe again.
INTERVIEWER: OK. On a scale of 0–100, how sure are you of that?
VICTIM: Oh, very sure. I’d say about a 90.

This psychopathological response to highly stressful situations is enabled by two core cognitions: the maladaptive appraisals of the stressor and its aftermath, and disturbances in autobiographical memory that involve impaired retrieval and strong associative memory.

There is ample research evidence that people who suffer from acute and chronic stress exaggerate both the probability of future negative events occurring and the adverse effects of these events. Other research shows that acute stress triggers a cognitive bias for events related to physical harm, negative bodily sensations, and concerns about social relationships.

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Spirituality, Longevity and Stress Reduction

Michelangelo_Sistina_CreazioneDiAdamo A recent article published on Medscape Internal Medicine [i] reiterates research evidence showing that church attendance can affect well-being through social integration and support and that spiritual experiences that provide a sense of purpose and meaning may promote hope and positively influence depression and marriage satisfaction, reduce alcohol use and prevent drug abuse. Church affiliation may also be a safe haven to avoid stigmatization by society for certain conditions.

Although the evidence provided appears for the time as insufficient to effectively demonstrate a definitive link between better health, lower mortality and spirituality, nonetheless a tentative connection has been clearly established. In stress management, the presence or absence of hope for the future, the perception of available support (either human or preternatural), and the sense of belonging that goes with spirituality are accepted protective factors that can significantly reduce the chronicity and ill effects of stress. What does the research of the last ten years show? Read more

Theo Pallake at Stresshacker.com

Top 11 reasons to love yourself

You must love yourself because…

1…you’re the only one you’ve got

You were born, you grew up, you became an adult…and there you are…you!  There’s no escaping the reality of it.  You are the only one in the world who is… you. Your uniqueness, your particular blend of talents, skills, shortcomings, idiosyncrasies, background, and experience is unmatched by anyone else on the planet. Doing something positive with this unique treasure of a life begins by accepting that you are the only one you are and will ever be.

2… it is a prerequisite to loving anyone else

If you are a Christian, and even if you’re not, you may have heard that Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  The key word in that sentence is the shortest word, the word “as.”  It means that unless you know how to love yourself, and are capable of loving yourself, you won’t know how to love anyone else, nor will you be able to.

3… it makes you happier

If you’ve ever wondered how some people just seem to be much happier than others with the way life is, and how they seem to manage their problems and adversities so much better, others have wondered the same thing. This has prompted a significant amount of research on happiness and on what makes it happen, what maintains it, and what it takes to have it.  While there are many factors that contribute to happiness, there is one characteristic of happy people that seems to be there across cultures, times and personalities: happy people do not hate themselves. Instead, they are rather fond of who and how they are, and many actually have a healthy love of self that doesn’t make them arrogant or conceited.

4… it adds to your lifespan

Happy, well-adjusted people seem to prefer lifestyles that add to their longevity rather than detract from it.  Perhaps one important explanation is that they cherish their lives, truly enjoy being with themselves, and are able to form lasting and secure bonds with others.  These are all protective factors that may help explain their longer lifespan.

5… it ensures better physical health

Loving yourself means first doing no harm. To the person who respects the fragility of the body, the need to ensure its optimal functioning, and the precious and irreplaceable gift of good health, harming the self is not even an option. This is why love of self generally leads to good decision-making skills on matters of alcohol and drug use, nutrition, exercise, medication, and risky behaviors. Love of self is also an extremely important component in avoiding major depression, in reducing the impact of stress, and in ensuring better mental health.

6… it agrees with those who love you

Sadly, many people who don’t care very much for themselves often argue with those who care about them. It is not unusual to see people suffering because a loved one insists on maintaining a harmful lifestyle, bad habits, and unhealthy behaviors. To accept someone else’s love, to accept that you are lovable enough for someone else to love you is the greatest joy for those who love you…and for you, too!

7… it helps you get over pain and hurt more quickly

A healthy attitude toward your life’s inevitable challenges comes from a good degree of self-confidence, which helps muster your available resources when the time comes.  Knowing that you can handle a crisis because you believe yourself to be strong, capable and good enough to manage it is the key to reducing the impact of the momentary hurts and pains of life.

8… you can’t be anyone else

Much effort and sorrow may go into trying to be someone you’re not. This effort produces very limited results at best, and at worst it can lead to tragicomic choices.  The reason?  It doesn’t fool anyone into believing that you are actually someone else.  Ultimately, everyone still knows that it is just you, trying to be someone you’re not. And how could it be otherwise?  Think about how much more credible and acceptable to everyone is to be just who you are.

9… it is easier than hating yourself

Hate takes a lot of work. I’ve heard it compared to a cancer that eats away at you from the inside. It is probably something very much like that, at the mental and often even at the physical level. Being unable to forgive yourself for your mistakes, being unable to accept your shortcomings, hating your looks, despising your personality…all this takes an enormous amount of emotional and intellectual energy that could be used towards more productive and enjoyable aims.

10… it makes you look better

When unhappy people are portrayed in movies, plays and novels they invariably are made to look unattractive either in obvious or more subtle ways.  Scriptwriters and authors put something in their demeanor, in their eyes, in their voice, in their mannerisms to indicate that we are seeing someone who is in pain. Self-loathing is visible to others: facial muscles are tense, actions are often contrived or insincere, and stress barely lives under the surface.  Contrast this image with that of someone who has a healthy love of self, and you will see someone who is comfortable with just being and who conveys this sense of comfort to everyone else.

11… it makes you more lovable by others

Who doesn’t love being with someone who can laugh, who can cry, who can be genuinely present?  And who doesn’t dread being with someone who’s always gloomy, depressed, unhappy, or self-critical?  The choice is yours to be one or the other.  Certainly, we all know that positiveness begets positiveness, love begets love, and happiness is truly contagious. Won’t you be that person who is so easy to love because you obviously know how to love yourself?

Worst Stress Relievers: Pain Medication

Who is to say for sure how much pain I have right now, I had yesterday morning, or will have this afternoon?   Only I can know for sure the pain I am feeling—and I can lie, to myself and to others.  Herein lies the greatest challenge of addiction to pain medication. There is no objective measuring tool for pain. The best we can do is to ask the person to rate his or her own pain on a scale of 1 to 10, with all the accuracy that can be expected from such a subjective assessment, which isn’t very much because pain can always feel more intense than it actually is, physically or sometimes just psychologically.

The sad result of the greater availability of pain medication, its greater potency, the beneficial effects felt by the individual by taking what amounts to a legal hit of morphine is an ever increasing number of people who are dying from abusing or misusing pain medication.  Among some groups, deaths from prescription drug overdoses are more than ten times higher than they were in the late 1960s. These are the results of an age-period-cohort analysis using data from the US Vital Statistics and the US Census, available online.

In the absence of significant pain, prescription painkillers are ingested because of their very powerful relaxing effects on the central nervous system and for the sensations of well-being that characterize their action. The presence of hydrocodone, which is the equivalent of synthetic opium, in these drugs makes them highly addictive. The first signs of a painkiller overdose include loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, sweating, and confusion or weakness. Later symptoms may include pain in the upper stomach, dark urine, and yellowing of the skin or the whites of the eyes. Overdose symptoms may also include extreme drowsiness, pinpoint pupils, cold and clammy skin, muscle weakness, fainting, weak pulse, slow heart rate, coma, blue lips, shallow breathing, or no breathing.

The rapid increase in mortality due to accidental poisoning that has been observed since 2000 is almost tenfold for whites and threefold for blacks over the study period. This appears to result at least in part from the coming of age of baby boomers who, as they age, are becoming addicted to prescription medications, most especially pain killers. The majority of prescription drug abuse involves painkillers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. In the US, Vicodin (containing acetaminophen and hydrocodone) is the most commonly abused prescription drug.

The greatest proportion of overdoses appears to occur in people in their 40s and 50s. While in 1968 about one per 100,000 white women in their early 50s died from accidental poisoning, the number has risen to 15 per 100,000 in 2007. Among black women of the same age, accidental poisoning deaths increased from about two per 100,000 to almost 17 per 100,000.

What’s the fix for this nationwide epidemic?  In the absence of an objective pain measure, it is hard to imagine how anyone can take exception to the screams of pain that can come from someone who is in the process of becoming addicted to pain medication, or already is.  Many doctors have taken the no-hassle course of prescribing, rather than questioning the veracity of the patient’s pain.  Many other medical practitioners, such as dentists and surgeons, have taken to dispensing large quantities of “samples” to patients who have had even the simplest procedure, “just in case you feel any pain.”  Of course, the patient takes the stuff, the pain (if any) goes away, and the powerful effects of the drug go to work by inducing a high that feels incredibly good. At this point, and in many sad cases, only a few short steps separate the patient from the addict.

More recently, the DEA has cracked down on pharmacies and doctors, with the intent of reducing the supply of these medications. More needs to be done to stop the flow, but also and most especially to educate the public on the potential addictive nature of these substances. They do work extremely well against pain, but at what cost?

Stress and the Female Brain Advantage

drlouannbrizendineIn 1994, Louann Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California, established the Women’s Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco—one of very few such institutions in the world—and focused her attention on the etiology and functioning of the female nervous system.

In 2007, she published The Female Brain as the culmination of her 20 years of research and a compendium of the latest findings from a range of disciplines. It is a fascinating and, in some ways, startling revelation of the most noteworthy particularities that characterize the human female brain.

Size Does Matter… and So Does Density

Women and men have very nearly the same number of brain cells, even though the female brain is about 9% smaller than men’s. This fact had been known for some time and had been, more or less jokingly, interpreted as meaning that women were not as smart. Dr. Brizendine reveals a much simpler explanation: women’s brain cells are more tightly packed into the skull.

To further dispel any notion of masculine brain superiority, she says, women have 11% more language and hearing neurons than men and a larger hippocampus, the area of the brain that is most closely associated with memory. Much more developed in female brains than male’s is also the circuitry for observing emotion on other people’s faces. Dr. Brizendine concludes that, when it comes to speech, emotional intelligence, and the ability to store richer and more detailed memories, women appear to possess a richer brain endowment and thus a natural advantage.

The amygdala in males, on the other hand, has far more processors than in females, which could explain men’s greater intensity in perceiving danger and their higher proneness to aggression. The male body is much quicker to mobilize to anger and take violent action in reaction to an immediate physical danger.

Are women not as capable of reacting to danger? Dr. Brizendine says that a woman’s brain is as capable to perceive danger or deal with life-threatening situations, but that it mobilizes the body’s resources in quite a different way. The female brain appears to be wired to perceive greater stress over the same event than a man’s. This greater arousal and more forceful stress reaction appears to be a natural way to ensure adequate protection against all possible risks to her children or family unit. Brizendine suggests that this ancestral reason may account for the way a modern woman may view unpaid bills as catastrophic and naturally perceive them more intensely threating to the family’s very survival.

[amtap book:isbn=0767920104]

MRI scans have pushed knowledge much higher by allowing the observation of the workings of the brain in real time. The brain lights up in different places depending on whether it is stimulated by love, looking at faces, solving a problem, speaking, or experiencing anxiety. What lights up, where and when, is different between men’s and women’s brains. Women use different parts of the brain and different circuits to accomplish the same tasks, including solving problems, processing language, and generally experiencing the world.

This is a fascinating book for the scientist and the novice alike, well worth reading. It is the Stresshacker Recommended selection for this month.

The Stress of… Stress

ClareIsland_EN-US2748591595There are times in which the stress reaction and the level of anxiety caused by a stressor are so high that the body’s reactions become extreme and add to the burden. Stress becomes stressful in itself and a problem of its own. Although the stress reaction itself is normal and necessary for survival, learning and for personal growth, the body’s reaction to the increased alert level causes a predictable and rather universal set of physical changes. These include:

  • Increased central nervous system activity—a state of full awareness
  • Increased mental activity and brainwave activity—full mental alert
  • Increased secretion of adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and cortisol into the bloodstream—a state of endocrine mobilization
  • Increased heart rate, cardiac output, and blood pressure—the way in which the body prepares to meet the physical demands of the stressor
  • Increased breathing rate, breathing airways dilation—brings more oxygen into the lungs
  • Increased metabolism, oxygen consumption, oxygen to the brain—oxygen is the principal sustainer of life for brain cells and for the whole body
  • Blood is diverted away from the digestive tract and directed into the muscles and limbs—the processing of food become secondary to averting or confronting the danger
  • Increased muscle contraction, which leads to increased strength—for either fight or flight, muscle readiness is automatically brought to the highest levels
  • Increased blood coagulation (blood clotting ability)—helps the body minimize the impact of possible injuries
  • Increased circulation of free fatty acids, a source of cellular energy—contributes to the readiness of the body to greater energy expenditure
  • Increased output of blood cholesterol—makes the blood richer in nutrients to be carried to muscles and other organs
  • Increased blood sugar released by the liver, to nourish the muscles—another important source of energy for best performance and strength
  • Release of endorphins from the pituitary gland—an activating hormone that boosts alertness throughout the body
  • Pupils of the eyes dilate—increases field and acuity of vision
  • Hair stands on its end—a remnant from the time when hair covered the most vulnerable body parts
  • Blood thins—this speeds up blood circulation for faster travel from center to periphery and back
  • Sweat glands increase secretion—a well lubricated body presents a slippery surface in a fight and cools it down below dangerous heat levels
  • Increased secretion from apocrine glands resulting in foul body odor—designed to repulse enemies
  • Capillaries under the surface of the skin constrict with a consequent increases in blood pressure—blood pumping to all parts of the body is enhanced
  • Immune system is suppressed–the immune system may have energy made available for it via reduction of other activities, may change in energetically conservative ways when the protection it confers needs to be balanced with the energetic demands of other activities such as fight or flight, or may be suppressed when other activities are more important than immunity for total well-being
  • Reproductive and sexual systems stop working normally—in times of high stress, sex and reproduction take a back seat to survival and protection
  • Decreased perception of painthe analgesia system, a pain suppressing mechanism that effectively shuts off sensory transmission to the brain, so that we are permitted to go about the business of getting out of the gravest danger without the crippling sensations of pain.

Stressed_WomanNo command is needed to activate these reactions that are programmed in the genetic code. Moreover, they cannot be prevented from occurring, except to a limited extent. At best, one can learn to control what is visible to others and, in some individuals, the heart rate can be somewhat controlled.

This cascade of physical reactions is good in two ways. First, when there is a danger or threat of some sort (e.g., a bus coming straight at us) we are instantaneously aroused into action: we step out of the bus’s path without really planning to do so, automatically. In this way, we have a chance to avoid and/or survive many physical threats to our well being. This ability enabled a  physically weak human race to survive and thrive among larger and stronger animals, earthquakes, fires, and interpersonal conflict during our long history on this planet. Can we imagine surviving very long without the mobilization caused by the stress reaction alarm system?

Second, we are programmed to respond not only to physical threats but also, and more importantly in our society, to non-physical threats that are emotional, social or psychological in nature. This is of great value because most threats nowadays come from circumstances of social living, such as relationships, jobs, economics, politics, environment, and technology.

Unfortunately, the stress reaction can be so overwhelmingly strong that we become stressed by stress itself, incapable of moving beyond its mesmerizing message of danger. Changing back the focus from the stress reaction to the stressor is the key to making an appropriate use of this vitally important warning system. It is also the key to responding vs. simply reacting. Learn this, and stress becomes the alert system most useful in navigating the treacherous straits of modern life.

Stress Hardware Reviews: The Hippocampus

clip_image001What brain structures rouse us from inactivity and set in motion our defense mechanisms when a stressor is perceived? Predictably, the brain’s older and more primordial area, the so-called animal brain, where the hypothalamus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the septum area, the basal ganglia and the thalamus are located. These structures, collectively called the limbic system, are interconnected and work together to initiate motor and other functional activities of the brain that mobilize the body. In this post about stress hardware, we discuss the hippocampus.

Virtually any experience perceived by the five senses appears to cause the activation of at least some part of the hippocampus. The hippocampus in turn redistributes these sensory signals to the thalamus, the hypothalamus, and other parts of the limbic system. Thus, the hippocampus acts as an important switching center through which incoming sensory signals are retransmitted and initiate behavioral reactions for different purposes. Its importance has been demonstrated empirically: experimental artificial stimulation of the hippocampus can induce a wide variety of behavioral patterns such as pleasure, rage, passivity, or excessive sexual drive.

The cells of the hippocampus appear to be especially sensitive to the effects of various stressors. Although not directly involved in the stress response, its ventral regions appear to exercise a regulatory influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity and are also a primary target for elevated glucocorticoid levels. The glucocorticoid hormones owe their name to their important effects on blood glucose concentration, which is the principal source of energy of the human cell. They also regulate protein and fat consumption, and the utilization of carbohydrates to produce additional quantities of energy. Cortisol is the principal glucocorticoid. Read more

Crying: Public, Political, and Private

BoehnerCryingDespite the popular (and clinical) consensus that emotional tears are beneficial, dating back to ancient history, the benefits of crying to one’s physical health and its effectiveness as stress reliever turn out to be unexpectedly controversial. Scientific evidence is inconsistent at best, owing in part to the difficulty in measuring the effects of crying on the body and on the psyche in a valid, reliable and reproducible way. Crying remains a poorly understood phenomenon whose physiology is not a mystery but whose product, human tears, appears to stir controversy when analyzed for composition and function.

It is some relief to weep; grief is satisfied and carried off by tears.- Ovid

Perhaps the best known and most controversial theory on the function of crying continues to be the 1985 research published by Dr. William Frey, who hypothesized that emotion-triggered tears may simply be an excretory process. Like other bodily waste, the primary function of emotional tears may be to remove ACTH, prolactin, endorphins, toxic substances and hormones that accumulate during emotional stress. Frey reported that emotional tears, at least those he studied in his laboratory, appeared to contain higher concentrations of some hormones. Frey also reported differences between the protein content of emotional and irritant tears. These results have proven difficult to interpret and duplicate, making it unclear whether this difference has any clinical relevance. Frey’s critics contend that the amount of tears shed by humans is generally so small that it is unreasonable to presume that this process would have any physiological benefit.

ClintonCryingA recently published book by Tom Lutz, Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears offers plenty of insights into the history of public crying, but few scientific explanations for the phenomenon. Lutz, a professor of creative writing at UC Riverside offers interesting anecdotes about the political value of public tears. Says Lutz, “Men cried openly and often in the upper classes in the 18th century. Lincoln and Douglas both cried on the stump. And men cry more openly now than they did 50 years ago. Issues of ‘control’ are always in relation to these changing social norms. Bob Dole cried in public exactly twice before his 1996 campaign. But in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton had transformed the political meaning of crying; it tracked very well with women voters. All of a sudden Bob Dole couldn’t control his crying and did it often.”  As to the reasons for public crying, “We do so for a number of reasons,” he says. “For emphasis (this is so important I give myself permission to break the rules); for self-definition (I don’t care how I’m supposed to act; this is who I really am); to ward off criticism (he’s too upset for me to challenge him); to suggest intimacy (he feels so comfortable with me he will break the rules in front of me); and so on.”

The BBC lists the following as the ten most frequent reasons people cry in public:

  1. Making one’s parents proud. For men, this most often refers to Dad, as many movies having this theme can attest, e.g. Field of Dreams.
  2. The birth of a first child or grandchild.
  3. The suffering of a loved one.
  4. Letting a loved one down.
  5. Saying I’m sorry.
  6. Letting yourself down.
  7. Being dumped.
  8. Being beaten in a hard-fought game.
  9. Winning a hard-fought game. Most recently famous is Iker Casillas, the goalie of the Spanish soccer team who just couldn’t stop crying after winning the 2010 World Cup.
  10. These aren’t emotional tears. It’s just bits of dust.

ronaldo-cryingPsychologically, crying appears to perform a valuable interpersonal function. Tears can be a powerful way to get what we want.  And there is some evidence to suggest that a process of natural selection favors infants whose cries are most alarming.  This bit of psychology appears intuitively to make sense when we think about how babies get attention — they cry. And so do Bill Clinton, John Boehner, Hillary Clinton, TV preachers, and countless others on baseball, football, soccer fields and TV sets everywhere. And they get attention.

Stuck On Wide Open: Emotional Dysregulation

domesticviolenceEmotional regulation is perhaps the most dramatically visible and the prototypical feature of an individual’s personality. Many people appear to be mostly in command of their emotions at critical moments, while others appear to be particularly (and sometimes explosively) reactive to environmental and interpersonal challenges. In general, affective or emotional instability, inordinate bursts of anger, intense efforts to avoid real or perceived abandonment, and unstable interpersonal relationships point to an underlying attribute of emotional dysregulation. This set of features has been popularized as belonging to “drama queens,” or persons who tend to react to every situation in an overdramatic or exaggerated manner.

Sometimes, instances of emotional dysregulation in children (“acting out” behaviors) or in adults under the most severe stressors can be viewed as the only available response in circumstances in which overwhelmingly strong emotion must be expressed, such as in the context of an emotionally abusive family environment or in times of great personal upheaval.

DramaQueen1A large body of research suggests that alcohol use can increase underlying emotional disturbance and disrupt cognitive functions that are very important in emotional self-regulation. Support for this hypothesis comes from studies that find associations between alcohol use and short- and long-term emotional change. In the short term, alcohol can disrupt emotional stability by effectively removing barriers against violence, verbal abuse, and inappropriate behaviors. In the long term, alcohol dependence and addiction can create a false persona in which it becomes difficult if not impossible to distinguish between the individual’s genuine personality traits and those modified or instigated by alcohol use.

Emotional disorders, particularly when they are characterized by pervasive emotional dysregulation, are often characterized by high negative emotionality and low positive emotionality. A significant challenge in trying to downregulate negative emotions is to become less vulnerable to negative or distressing emotions, with the objective of increasing calmness and resilience in stressful situations.

To achieve better emotional regulation, biological change and contextual change are needed. Biological change is achieved by reducing individual reactivity to emotional stimuli. Even when this reactivity may be due to genetic dispositions (temperament) and early developmental experiences (nurture), most people can learn ways to better control their emotional expression. There is a combination of skills and interventions that is particularly helpful in promoting biological homeostasis and emotional stability. These include treating any underlying physical illness that may have a negative effect on mood, balancing nutrition and eating to replenish and maintain physical resources, staying off non-prescribed mood-altering substances, getting sufficient but not excessive sleep, and getting adequate physical exercise.

Contextual change refers to learning and practicing emotional resiliency, which is the ability to minimize negative effects of stressful events and situations, and to maximize the positive effects of positive outcomes and opportunities. The skill of resiliency is learned and reinforced by intentionally accumulating positive life events, i.e., making a conscious and deliberate catalog of what’s positive in one’s life and referring to it often until it is present and readily available in time of need. It also consists of developing practical skills that build a sense of generalized mastery and promote self-esteem, e.g., completing school, obtaining additional job training, taking an assertiveness course, and the like.

What Causes (And Cures) Emotional Dysregulation

The amygdala has been implicated in emotional dysregulation, aggressive behavior, and psychiatric illnesses such as depression. Anxiety disorders and dysregulation may be the result of too much activity in the amygdala and not enough activity in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the executive center of the brain that sets boundaries of behavior and responds to criteria of calm, assertiveness, and emotional regulation.

BDNFStress, coupled with a genetic vulnerability, decreases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that acts on the nervous system by helping the survival of existing neurons and promoting the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. A reduction in BDNF production causes a thinning of neuronal structures, which can results in emotional disturbance. These structural changes make the prefrontal limbic governing system vulnerable to disruption and dysregulation. Thus, emotional stress, loss, or  other significant psychological factors cause the system to lose self-regulation.

Treatments such as antidepressant medications, lithium, electroconvulsive therapy, exercise, psychotherapy and good social support can reverse this process, increase the production of BDNF, renew neuronal growth, build more resilient self-regulating circuits, and return the individual to a healthy mood.

Disorders of Emotional Dysregulation

PTSD, or posttraumatic stress disorder, is characterized by very significant emotional dysregulation. Its sufferers experience unwarranted arousal—often caused by stimuli processed Depressed-Soldier-02outside of conscious awareness—and exhibit an exaggerated startle response, vivid intrusive thoughts, and flashbacks and nightmares related to past traumatic events. PTSD victims may frantically try to avoid physical or psychological reminders of their trauma, and may experience dissociative symptoms or emotional numbing. PTSD is a disorder of emotional dysregulation characterized by excessive fear, triggered by a severe and often life-threatening traumatic event.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) is characterized by emotional dysregulation, the temporary but frequent inability to change or regulate emotional cues, experiences, actions, verbal responses, and nonverbal expressions. Individuals with BPD experience greater emotional sensitivity, greater emotional reactivity, and slower return to normal levels of arousal after intense stimulation.

Frontal lobe disorders, which have become rather common among combat survivors, are the product of traumatic brain injury and are characterized by emotional dysregulation, attention deficit, impulsivity, lack of inhibition,  poor insight, impaired judgment, and low motivation. These frontal-subcortical disorders can result not only from war zone trauma, but also from infection, cancer, stroke, and neurodegenerative disease. Explosive violence, often directed at family members, is a common occurrence, particularly in individuals in whom impulsivity, disinhibition, and emotional dysregulation are the most dominant features.

Finally, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by emotional as well as cognitive dysregulation, brought on by a disruption of both the “thinking” prefrontal and the “feeling” paralimbic networks.

In these and other disorders that feature emotional dysregulation, it is interesting to note that the anatomic structures that are affected have emotional as well as cognitive functions. This coincidence highlights once again the close interdependence of affective and cognitive operations in the human brain. We can’t feel deeply without thinking intensely, and vice versa.