This month I think we should talk about stress. When I say stress I do not mean the stressed-out kind of stress; this is a wellness column after all. So I will begin with a simple definition of something that we all experience daily.
In medical terms, stress is the disruption of homeostasis through physical or psychological stimuli. Stressful stimuli can be mental, physiological, anatomical or physical reactions.
General Adaptation Syndrome
This is the 1st stage. When the threat or stressor is identified or realized, the body's stress response is a state of alarm. During this stage adrenaline will be produced in order to bring about the fight-or-flight response. There is also some activation of the HPA axis, producing cortisol.
This is the 2nd stage. If the stressor persists, it becomes necessary to attempt some means of coping with the stress. Although the body begins to try to adapt to the strains or demands of the environment, the body cannot keep this up indefinitely, so its resources are gradually depleted.
This is the 3rd stage. In the final stage in the GAS model, all the body's resources are eventually depleted and the body is unable to maintain normal function. At this point the initial autonomic nervous system symptoms may reappear (sweating, raised heart rate etc.). If stage three is extended, long term damage may result as the capacity of glands, especially the adrenal gland, and the immune system is exhausted and function is impaired resulting in decompensation. The result can manifest itself in obvious illnesses such as ulcers, depression or even cardiovascular problems, along with other mental illnesses.
The majority of Responders spend most of the time in the Resistance and, I fear sadly, the Exhaustion phase. Back in the Stone Age, after a stressor was gone, our ancestors rested and re-refueled so they were mentally and physically able to take on the next stressor, let's say a saber tooth tiger. Today the stress mechanism functions just as it did in the caveman days. The problem is that the stress response does not discriminate a real threat from a perceived threat.
Does this scenario sound familiar? You're sitting in heavy rush-hour traffic and you get a call for a shooting. You can feel your blood pressure skyrocket and your mind races as the red lights and traffic threaten your ability to reach the call. You arrive at the call and media and bystanders appear as menacing to your body as the saber tooth tiger appeared to your caveman relative. Your heart begins to pump faster as blood rushes to your large muscles in preparation for your response.
You make it through the event, having controlled the scene, assisted EMS, but not finding a bad guy to arrest; now it is time to calm down and write your report. Your supervisor is calling and the media is asking questions. You notice your breathing getting heavier as you start to feel a little queasy. Again your mind begins to race and unlike the caveman whose primitive mind was focused solely on life and death, you find it hard to focus on your report as your mind is bombarded with a myriad of scattered thoughts. You make it through the call and after a less than nutritious fast food snack and a soda, you put yourself in service, ready for the next call. The problem here is that unlike the caveman who was under stress at relatively short spurts in an average day, the Responder faces an onslaught of figurative 'saber tooths' that keep the stress response on at all times.
Studies are conclusive about the fact that long term activation of the stress response, living in the 'Exhaustion' phase, will eventually bring down even the strongest Responder. So what is a Responder to do? Believe it or not some very simple tricks can give your body a leg up on that saber tooth tiger.