Psychology in My Life ~ Stress, Health and Self care.

Welcome to another installment in Psychology in my life.
Today we are going to read about Stress, your (and my) health and self care.

So what is stress? I mean we have all heard people talk about it. And if the media is at all on the right track it is the latest fad epidemic.

Well, that is both true and not true. Yes, the media has grabbed and run with the whole stress thing. But for once they have not got the story ENTIRELY ass backwards. Stress has a massive impact on your health. So what IS it and just how does it impact you?

Firstly stress is classified into two kinds. Eustress and Distress. We all know how distress is pronounced – but the other is said YOUstress.

As you might expect, distress is the bad one. So let’s start with the good news

Eustress, This is generally considered a good stress. This is the kind of stress that motivates us to do things. Like the portion of all the stress I am feeling right now that is related to me being worried about not finishing this assignment on time. What characterizes eustress, is the fact that it is short-lived. Once you accomplish your goal or meet your deadline, it is gone. And that it is about something you have control over. I have control over the work I do on this assignment, and once I have it posted and printed, it will be done with, no more stress about this. So this makes that stress, eustress.

So – eustress good right? That seems simple.

Now for the bad news. Distress.

Distress is the stress that kills people.

So what makes it different from Eustress? Well, firstly distress is usually about things that are out of our control. Or is out of proportion to the things I can control. In my case my wife’s mental illness is a source of distress. I cannot control it, I cannot change it, it stresses me.

Another factor that describes bad stress, is that it does not go away. It is long term. And often it is so long term that stuff builds on top of it. Kind of like as if it were part of the furnature of your personality. Lots of little stresses can contribute to a lot of stress.

Stress is often looked at by psychologists as a conflict between the conscious and sub or un conscious minds. This is captured rather well in this witty quote

“Stress, this is the natural reaction to the mind’s decision to over-ride the body’s basic desire to choke the living shit out of some dumb schmuck who desperately needs it.”

We see her, the body’s basic desire, hinting at the subconscious. And the mind’s decision, talking about the conscious.

And the concept appears in popular literature. One of my favourites is in the Australian movie, ‘The Castle’, you will notice that the father in this is regularly venting is frustrations and stresses with the phrase “Somebody should blow those bloody ????? up!!” With the ????? being whatever it was he was frustrated at or about. And isn’t this a desire or image all of us can relate to? In my humble, uneducated and inexpert opinion, this is the reason for the wealth of movies these days that have very little storyline that doesn’t involve people being shot or stuff blowing up. Because it resonates with so many of us and our secret desires to blow up or shoot things that stress us. It would even be present in computer and video games. Heck I have a game I have tucked aside for that very purpose, to be able to jump onto the game and revel in the violence of shooting digital guns and blowing up digital enemies.

But why does stress affect our health?

Ok – here I am going to bend one of the cardinal rules of critical thinking, I am going to simplify this – WAY OVER simplify it.

Picture your body as a car, and you in your brain, as the driver.

Now when you want to make the car go, you press the accelerator pedal (step on the gas), but just enough to make the car move right? And only until you have the car moving at the appropriate speed. Then you let your foot off the pedal. That pedal is generating stress. By pushing down you stress the engine, and to deal with that stress it responds by going faster. When you let your foot of, you let that stress become eustress, and when the car has taken you to where you want to go, the stress is gone, it’s goal accomplished, right?

Ok – now let’s just say that someone reaches in and jams a brick on that accelerator. This is something that you cannot do anything about, as the brick is jammed there. The engine is being stressed, it keeps going faster and faster to try to keep up with the stress, but the stress is not ending.

What’s going to happen? Well if you know anything about cars, driving and mechanics you know that you will probably have an accident, and if you don’t you will burn out your engine if you keep it running like that long enough.

Distress is just like the car with the brick on the accelerator. The stress triggers the brain to make the body ready for action. The brain does this by keying the body up, releasing hormones like cortisol and triggering the body to release hormones like adrenaline (kind of like the body’s equivalent of turbo and nitrous boost. And as you can imagine, this can only go on for so long before the body cannot handle being run like that any more and things start to break down.

Cortisol does many things. It changes how your brain works for one, it engages the sympathetic nervous system which is kind of like switching over to battle mode. All the peacetime functions are cut back. Which includes things like digestion, complex thinking and reasoning, healing, emotions. And it turns the focus on the battle mode type things, like your major muscle groups, your heart and lungs, your instant reaction centres of your brain. And it sends a jolt to the adrenal glands, that pump out adrenaline. This juice tells the blood vessels to change from feeding most of your organs and feed your heart, lungs and muscles. It makes your nerve fibres twitchy, kind of switching them on high (this runs them down by the way). And it makes your heart beat faster and harder, increasing your blood pressure.

Now if this is just eustress, as soon as the trigger is over, your parasympathetic nervous system has a chance to jump in and turn down the activity, send things back to normal. Get your body healing itself from the wear and tear, get the digestion working on replacing the fuel reserves lost, get the kidneys and liver working to get the cortisol and adrenaline out of your blood, and opening up those brain functions shut down for the battle mode.

But what if the trigger doesn’t go away? What if your parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t get a chance to fix up the mess that the stress leaves behind?

THAT is when stress turns dangerous. It can lead to damage to all your major organs, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, skin, muscles, and of course brain.

Yes, I said it, the brain gets damaged by stress. Stress shuts down some functions, and over extended periods the brain actually changes to accomidate what it is being asked to do. Cells die in some areas, cells grow in other areas. This makes the brain less able to cope with coming off the stress. Because it’s cannibalised the non stress function cells to make stress function cells.

Que all the ‘this is your brain on stress’ jokes because adrenaline is a steroid, so you can get some of the similar effects that someone who is abusing steroids for sport gets.

That’s bad right? Yeah folks, that’s bad Mmmm Kay!?

So what do we do about it? There really only is one thing TO do about it.

Self care.

 See how I did that? I segued seamlessly into my next and final portion of tonight’s exciting episode! Yeah, ok, so bragging about it may have spoiled the effect a bit, but I am going to bask in my own self decided glory for a moment none-the-less, it’s part of my selfcare plan!!

What is self care? Why is it important and how does it relate to me?

That’s a whole lot of questions. Let’s look at this one at a time.

What is self care. To put it in the most basic and useless of terms. Self care is taking care of yourself.
I hear you say – Well DUH Einstein, but what does THAT mean?
You’d be right to say so. In fact, that is what I said when it was told to me.

So first, what is your goal. When engaging in self care, the goal is to disengage the sympathetic nervous system and get the parasympathetic nervous system to have a chance to do some of it’s good work.

Call a ceasefire to give the soldiers a chance to rest and the medics a chance to clean up the battlefield a bit.

It’s all about dialling down the stress. The point and purpose is to work at engaging the parts of the brain that have been temporarily shut down in battle mode.

Now this is tricky, because initially it won’t work. And that may cause you to want to rant and froth at the mouth and scream about it. But this actually won’t help and will make things harder. So try doing something simpler, and just keep making yourself do something simple and relaxing.

Like what? You may ask. And that is indeed exactly what I asked.

THIS is where it gets obscure and frustrating. I cannot tell you what to do that will help you relax and rejuvenate. Because what works for me may well not work for you.

But you need to find things that do work for you. Some simple common examples might be colouring in colouring books, or doing some artwork, or going for a bike ride, or a swim.
Often some physical exercise is good, it helps us burn off the adrenaline. But you don’t want to engage in anything too competitive or violent, because that will have the opposite effect.

The next thing you want to look for is something to help the emotional centre of your brain relax and replenish. Find activities that make you feel good, happy, relaxed, accomplished. This will encourage the brain to release neurotransmitters like nor-epinephrine, serotonin and, if you are good or lucky, even dopamine. This will engage the non-battle mode part of your brain more, and encourage the opposite of the brain changes that adrenaline and cortisol make happen.

Some other activities that may help. Meditation and tai chi. While there is nothing at all magical or mystical about them. They are great ways to help your body and mind relax.

So – how does this apply to my life? Not nearly as well as I would like, but better than it used to.

I have been sole caregiver for my mentally ill wife for some years now. And that, combined with the day to day stressors, has created my own perfect storm of stress.

So I have managed to find some things I do that help relax me.
I do some volunteer work, it lets me help others, and that changes my brain around right there. It’s a sense of accomplishment and goodwill that really helps. I help other family members of sufferers of mental illness learn to self care and cope. I also man a crisis line, because talking to people and giving them a place to talk helps them, and that helps me.

So my reasons for volunteering are selfish. Damn skippy! So are most people’s reasons.

So – you’ve found your preferred activities and are starting to feel a little better?
Now it is time to target some self care.
There is some theories that say there are 4 areas of lie that you need to care for.

  • The social – you need friends and support – after all us humans are social creatures (ok, you humans, the jury’s still out on me)
  • The spiritual. Some people take this to mean their church or religious or faith affiliations. Personally I think this section is very poorly named. At first the naming of it gave me a lot of trouble understanding it. Because you see I am not in the least bit religious, and I am not in the least bit a believer in any faith. But what this is about is not necessarily god or your church or beliefs – at least not in that sense. This is about looking at your world view. It’s about you exploring that and growing it. Supporting it. If, for you, that means going to church, then do that. If you are like me and don’t think that way, then get in touch with others who think like you. There are atheists out here in the world, and agnostics, and sKeptics. Do what helps you build and support your world view. Just please remember one thing. Do it in a way that doesn’t set out to harm others. I am fully aware that not all these world views are going to work together or agree. And while respectful debate on them is perfectly healthy and even a very good and positive thing. Going out into the world to force your belief system on others is not healthy, not respectful and not helpful. If someone brings you a debate or questions you, then they have engaged you. But if you bring a debate to someone and they are not interested, forcing the issue is very anti-social.
  • The Physical – this is the obvious stuff. Eat healthy food, exercise, make sure you take care of injuries or ailments and drink plenty of water.
  • The intellectual – This one is maybe a little related to the spiritual. But it’s more about exercising your brain. Read books, learn things, do a course at community college – or, if you are like me and broke all the time, get onto the internet. I listen to science podcasts myself – I love them.

There we go. Here ends my little foray into psychology. At least for now.

We started with critical thinking, and saw how my screwed up history started my journey beyond the looking glass and into the land of stress. We talked about conditioning, and how I learned to be as twisted as I am. And we have just looked at stress, how it is killing me, and how I am trying to not let it do that.

So, something to say? Well, there is a comment link somewhere around here. Pop on and leave me a note. I’ll put a follow up post on to let everyone know how I went with marks for this little assignment. Though I am sure no-one really wants to know. So if you don’t, well hey, don’t bother reading it 😀


~ by scawalrus on November 28, 2011.

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