The Real Enemy – Chronic Stress
Many articles about stress talk a lot about the condition but very little about the people experiencing it. If we use the person as the starting point and realize that their internal state is simply a reflection of how they experience their immediate surroundings, then the ‘condition’ of stress becomes humanized and more understandable.
Our whole being is continually monitoring the inside and outside environment and quickly lets us know if things are not OK. Stress, in this context, is simply a message that there is a problem. When your brain detects any kind of danger, then a hormone called cortisol is released which primes your body for instant action – fight, flight or freeze. Here stress is beneficial, preparing you to… meet new challenges and understanding this can actually change your physical stress response, causing, for example, blood vessels to stay relaxed instead of constricting.
Problems arise, however, when your cortisol levels remain high because you can’t find ways to relax. High levels of cortisol over long periods of time can wreak havoc on your brain and body. Recent research has shown that chronic stress can shrink the size of your brain, change its structure and how it functions – right down to the level of your genes. It has been linked to premature ageing, heart disease, serious mental problems like depression and eventually Alzheimer’s disease.
So how does stress become toxic? To paraphrase Sue Gerhardt – love really does matter. During childhood, when we feel loved, cared for and significant in the eyes and touch of our primary caretaker, we are made Kings and Queens in our life experiencing. We can move forward with power and confidence, sure of our rightful place in this world. Our bodies and feelings become resources that help us meet life’s challenges and trials. We can trust our responses and thus continue to broaden and enlarge our life experiencing – ‘I’m in tune with my life and I feel good’
Unfortunately this is a reality very few experience. All too often the early attachment is cold, hostile, indifferent or just plain absent and we become like strangers onto ourselves, feeling the pain, despair and hopelessness of an abandoned child. We know no inner security or sense of belonging and, thus, we fail to learn and build up the internal resources that could alleviate these conditions. We become more insular and cut off not only from others but also from our inner experiencing. Thus a chronic stressed reaction is created. We are out of tune.
Research confirms this by showing that the pups of nurturing mother rats became more stress resistant by developing cortisol receptors which stick to cortisol and dampens the stress response, while pups of negligent mother rats had the opposite outcome and became more sensitive to stress throughout life. Alarmingly this effect was also found to be inheritable.So, what you deal with is not only hardwired into your system but will probably also be cross-generational.
What, then, can we do? The main solution, if you experience chronic stress reactions, is to accept the scale of the problem and get professional help. Amazingly, your body is also giving you the same advice, as your pituitary gland releases a stress hormone called oxytocin as part of the stress response. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel, instead of bottling it up. So seek out a skilled and compassionate carer who has an understanding of internal stress dynamics and who can provide the right kind of nurturing and informed environment for healing to occur. Here you can learn how to tune back into your inner being, begin to swap your ‘internal critic’ for a more nurturing ‘inner parent’ and end the self-sabotaging, self-negating life patterns that keep you locked into a circular chronic stress creating environment.
This is the beginning of a series of articles on chronic stress. In future articles, I will explore further the dynamics of change and how we can build up and strengthen new internal resources that transforms this kind of stress.
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