Stress related disorders have become increasingly common, and the wear and tear caused by chronic stress can contribute to a physical and/or mental breakdown. Some disorders such as hypertension (high blood pressure), have reached almost epidemic proportions. Because of these increases, stress and ways of dealing with it, are a major target of medical and psychological researchers. Of course, it is not possible or advisable to attribute all disease to stress. A person's health is, after all, the result of complex environmental, biological, behavioural and health care factors. In the quest for improved personal health, stress deserves our attention in the treatment of disease and consideration of lifestyle.
What is stress? Stress can be defined as the experience of unpleasant over (or under)-stimulation which potentially leads to ill-health. No human being can function without stimulation and challenge. It is part of life and provides excitement, impetus and motivation, as well as, unfortunately distress and anxiety. As long as you feel in control, challenge can be invigorating. However, with some of the challenges you meet, the more disabling, feelings and actions associated with stress, can take hold. Stress is the result of a mismatch between the challenges you experience and your belief in your ability to cope. The challenges may come from sources external to you and may be the result of too much or too little pressure. Pressures may also come from within you, and be a product of your own value systems, needs and expectations. Everyone perceives and interprets stress in different ways. The physical effects of stress One of the first areas to consider is the chemical burden from our modern and affluent lifestyle. Pesticides, fertilisers, additives, sprays and other chemicals which we are constantly in contact with initiate stress reactions within our bodies. The ingestion of allergenic foods is highly stressful. Most people are considered intolerant to something. The detrimental effects of tea, coffee and alcohol; other than being nutritionally valueless, is that they create a direct physical stress on the internal organs responsible for detoxifying them (mainly the liver) and further unbalance our emotional state because they are stimulating drugs. There can also be physical stress from over exertion leaving you feeling exhausted and energy levels totally depleted. Consider someone who works long hours or shift-hours where the natural rhythm of bodily function and internal energy exchanges are either inhibited or thrown out of balance. The proverbial 'workaholic' very often suffers, primarily from physical and mental exhaustion. The emotional effects of stress These create tension and irritability which is very often manifested as disease or illness as ways of dealing with emotions that cannot be expressed. When a person finds themselves in a circumstance which they feel is beyond their control and with seemingly no resolve, they will often subconsciously transfer their feelings to the physical, as its form of expression. A common example here is headache; the feeling of hopelessness that results from being locked into a particular role or circumstance often results in a headache. Of course, the more organic causes of headache could include eyestrain, constipation or neck problems, however, no amount of physical therapy will solve the problem if there is a strong emotional "cause" behind it. Skin problems usually have an identifiable emotional basis. An irritating skin complaint can often be the result of irritating life circumstances. It might be irritation with your job for example. If such stresses are not dealt within the right way at the emotional level, they will most likely manifest as an irritating rash or similar condition until the problem is resolved. Another example is constipation; If chronic cases do not respond to the physical priorities of more water and fibre in diet, the cause may be retention in the mind, for example, holding on tenaciously to old ideas or relationships that no longer serve our best interests. These mental retentions can manifest as the physical retention of rubbish that we would best be well rid of. Physical therapies like drugs, vitamins, herbs and diet will be useful in all cases, however to use only physical therapies would not acknowledge the all powerful role that the mind and the subconscious, in particular, play in our state of well being and this shows what an important part massage is in the treatment of stress related disorders. The mental effects of stress These impair logical thinking and can occur for many reasons. There may be a conflict at work or at home; worry about your appearance, abilities or relationships, children, career or finances. Indeed anything! A problem which does not bear a second thought for one person, may be a catastrophe for another. These stresses and conflicts are very real for those who are experiencing them. In this sense, stress is highly subjective and here in lies a major key to correcting it. To change your thinking about a problem is often enough to correct that problem. The very existence of worrying stress is confirmation that better ways of approaching and handling the situation need to be found. Stressful problems must be rectified or they will make us miserable emotionally and will very likely manifest physically. The vehicles for this physical manifestation being our nervous and endocrine systems (hormones), which form the link between thought and the physical. Suppressed emotions can result in physical disease as well as mental disease. Two of the more common conditions which are easily related to stress are ulcers and hypochlorhydria (digestion issues). These are often the direct result of emotional and physical stress. You will recognise that these complaints result in pain and poor digestion and will eventually have an effect on every cell within our body. The behavioural effects of stress From a purely physical point of view our body reacts
the same way, no matter what the stress is. Be it an argument with your employer or flight from a wild animal; the physical response will be basically the same; only the degree of response will vary according to the intensity of the stress. The advantages of the latter example is that you are either going to be eaten by that wild animal or you will escape! Either way the stress will be resolved. It is often not possible to resolve stresses in our modern and complex framework of social interaction. Intense emotions may have to be buried with no opportunity for immediate or short term resolve. These feelings of anger, futility, resentment and hurt are left to eat away at our very core. It is important to acknowledge that all stresses are not bad. Some stress is necessary and is a great motivator. Indeed stress reactions are very necessary for our survival. They are our body's way of preparing for and dealing with crises. This is both necessary and healthy. What is not healthy is excessive or chronic (ongoing, long term) stress. When we are chronically stressed all of these physical reactions (fight or flight mode) remain active. Everything is thrown out of balance. It is hardly conducive to the digestion if, through a stress reaction, your blood has been directed away from the digestive area and gastric secretion has been inhibited. Two examples of this would be arguing at the dinner table or maintaining intense mental activity at work whilst eating lunch. In conclusion, it is important to realise that however well you appear to cope with everyday life, you will experience stress to some degree. Moderate amounts are good for you, and can improve your performance, your efficiency and productivity. But too much may generate disabling emotions such as overwhelming anxiety and tension, difficulty in thinking clearly, and a wide range of behavioural responses.