Stress is a term in common usage. Most people know what stress is and know exactly when they are stressed. When experiencing stress you typically feel tense, anxious, irritable, or angry. You may experience sleep problems, sexual problems, or a loss or increase in appetite. You may feel compulsive and find that you drink, eat, masturbate, or spend more money than usual, or you may find that you make reckless impulsive decisions. You may be prone to lashing out, mood swings, depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking, and crying. Other common indications of stress include memory loss, brain-fog, rashes, and headaches or migraines.
There are however two important things that most people don’t know about stress. The first is that stress is a whole body experience and as such it creates both psychological and physical symptoms, such as rashes, aches and pains, tremors, unusual bodily sensations, and changes in hormone levels. Stress can also be responsible for such symptoms as irregular periods and irritable bowl syndrome.
The second is that stress can be both a conscious and an unconscious experience. Conscious stress is when distressing life circumstances cause an arousal in your nervous system. This is the form of stress that people are most familiar with. Unconscious stress however is when the cause of your stress is outside of your current field of awareness. Unconscious stress triggers all of the same psychological, emotional, and bodily symptoms as conscious stress, but you don’t see a particular reason as to why they are stressed. When asked if they are stressed, sufferers of unconscious stress will typically say ‘no’. They see no apparent stressor and therefore intuit that they can’t possibly be stressed.
"I would go so far as to say that stress, in some shape or form, is THE cause of almost every symptom and problem that human beings experience, beyond viral diseases, broken bones, and genetic complications."
The fact is that our conscious perception is only a small fraction of our organisms potential. Our unconscious mind, which loosely correlates with two major brain regions known as the limbic system and the brain stem, governs the overwhelming majority of our experience, and it does so outside of our conscious awareness.
I would go so far as to say that stress, in some shape or form, is THE cause of almost every symptom and problem that human beings experience, beyond viral diseases, broken bones, and genetic complications. Because stress is a biopsychosocial phenomenon it invariably affects your biology, your psychology, and your social and emotional behaviour.
At its evolutionary root, stress is your body’s organic response to threat and danger. In our evolution we developed a finely tuned capacity to react instinctively to danger. In order to survive we need to be able to react quickly and efficiently. A threat trigger is registered in a part of the brain known as the amygdala. The amygdala is like a central processing unit in the brain. All information is processed by the amygdala before being sent onto the requisite brain regions. The amygdala screens every piece of ‘data’ that we receive and assesses it in terms of its potential for danger. If it perceives a potential threat it triggers an instant shift in your autonomic nervous system mobilising you for action.
Your autonomic nervous system governs all of your automatic bodily functions, such as breathing, heart rate, muscle tone, pupil dilation, excretory systems, skeletal system, and so on. When your organism goes into fight/flight, biological changes occur to deal with the threat. In some case your nervous system temporarily diverts resources away from some systems so that it can preserve energy to facilitate your attack/defence response.
"When you have to either beat a predator to death, or run for your life, you either survive or die. If you survive, your body experiences a feedback of mastery and your autonomic nervous system switches off its stress response and your body returns to homoeostasis, or rest and relaxation."
While highly effective and highly necessary for survival, we no longer live on the Serengeti, and many of the threats we experience are abstract in nature. When you have to either beat a predator to death, or run for your life, you either survive or die. If you survive, your body experiences a feedback of mastery and your autonomic nervous system switches off its stress response and your body returns to homeostasis, or rest and relaxation.
Many abstract threats we face can neither be fought nor escaped from with any immediacy, meaning your body no longer has the capacity to down regulate its stress response. In some cases it continues on high alert indefinitely. To add insult to injury, your amygdala, which is a part of your unconscious brain, frequently identifies threats that your conscious mind – your rational self – is totally oblivious of.
"Your amygdala, which is a part of your unconscious brain, frequently identifies threats that your conscious mind – your rational self – is totally oblivious of."
As you can see, stress - or more accurately our survival instinct - is a complex phenomenon! Is it any wonder that as a species we can experience all manner of symptoms and problems in spite of our upbringing, financial status, or rational capability?
We are all exposed to stress on a daily basis, and we can all be wounded by stressful events in the past.
Fortunately therapy is effective at resolving stress and putting you back in control, and I highly recommend you take a look at my Sequential Psychotherapy website for a detailed look at the effects of stress and how symptoms can be both created and resolved. Whether you want help dealing with a particularly stressful event, or you feel stressed, overwhelmed, or burnt-out, why not get in touch to book your FREE initial consultation and join me either at The Bristol Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy Clinic or online via Skype to discuss your situation and what we can do to get you comfortably back in control.
I got in touch with Seb because I was experiencing a lot of family troubles and work stress and didn't know why I was feeling so worked up. Having worked with Seb on a couple of areas it's amazing how much this has helped. It has completely changed the way I view certain situations. I now feel calm and confident knowing that no matter what comes my way, I have the right tools and knowledge to overcome any difficulties.
S.S. - Stress & Anxiety