Tag Archives: stress

Accumulated Stress – What is it?

What is meant by “accumulated stress”? One way to think of it is as the loss of resiliency in a person’s capacity to respond to life challenges. Stress, when presented in manageable doses, and in situations where one can mobilize an effective response, is an opportunity for developing increased knowledge, competency, and joy. Think about learning to ride a bike. There is stress involved in learning to balance, pedal, and steer, all at the same time. When the stress is met successfully, and the body gets to do what it wants to do, you experience the exhilaration that comes along with a new-found sense of freedom.

Loss of “flow” in our nervous systems

On the other hand, modern life can hand us many experiences that don’t allow our bodies to complete a response in the way for which they were designed. Competing demands of work, family, relationships, parenting, household maintenance, and so forth, require mobilization of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system. This is the same branch that mobilizes our flight/fight responses in response to a perception of threat, whether real or imagined. It was never designed to be switched “on” all the time. However, the demands of life, the way many people live it now, lead to the constant “override” of the parasympathetic response. Rest, play, sleep fall by the way side. Our nervous systems become tuned to a higher and higher frequency of sympathetic arousal, which never really disengages, unless we fall into collapse. Our nervous systems are designed to be able to respond with a significant flow, with sufficient range, between sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. Yet, over time, we lose this range of frequency, becoming stuck “on” or “off,” or in a pattern of disorganized, abrupt shifting between the two.

Think of a guitar string. When it is tuned to the right pitch, it is capable of resonating in a musical way that delights. If it is tuned too tightly, it will vibrate at an unpleasantly “sharp” frequency. Tighten it even more, and it may finally “give up” and break, and be incapable of making any sound at all.

In people, this loss of resiliency in the nervous system results in symptoms such as inability to sleep–or sleep restfully–irritability, anxiety, panic, digestive disorders, chronic pain, depression, and so on. When this happens, we have access to fewer and fewer behavioral, emotional, and cognitive choices. Our behavior seems out of sync with the situation at hand. We snap at a loved one over a minor irritation, rather than expressing our feelings gently. We have trouble focusing on important tasks because our anxiety level is too high. We push and push ourselves to exhaustion just so we’ll be able to sleep. We fall into collapse and can’t mobilize any coping strategies at all. We turn to drugs, alcohol, and medications to manage our bodies.

 Restoring Flow

My approach, which includes a combination of talk therapy and Somatic Experiencing techniques, is designed to help educate you about your body, teach you to “read” its signals, notice your activation, and support you to allow for deactivation. Ultimately, talking things through allows you to explore your emotions and thoughts, make sense of what’s happening, explore different responses, and make a plan for how to maintain a healthier balance in order to nourish body, mind, and soul.

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Accumulated Stress

Accumulated stress is a significant and growing problem for people today.  Humans, like other mammals, are physiologically designed to mobilize a stress response in order to deal with an approaching threat, or to hunt food for survival.  The stress response is intended to be a short-term (3 minutes or so) response to an specific situation, after which energy that has been mobilized but not needed should be discharged out of the nervous system.

The Stress Response in Modern Life

For humans, there are often two problems with the completion of this response.  The first is that we inhibit ourselves due to social norms and beliefs.  If you have ever started shaking after a stressful event, but tried to stop yourself out of self-consciousness, then you will understand what this means.  Emergency personnel will often administer drugs to stop shaking or trembling.  The outcome is that the energy that has been mobilized but not discharged will remain locked in the nervous system.

The second challenge for human beings is that we become conditioned to mobilize the stress response in reaction to memories, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, or when we THINK we are about to be stressed.   It is much more likely for a modern human to be stressed by these factors than because he or she is being chased by a lion.  When the stress response is mobilized in response to psychological stressors, the same physiological responses occur, but generally cannot lead to completion, because we can’t physically outrun or fight back against an unreasonable boss, an overdue bill payment, a broken toilet, or a child failing a class. To paraphrase Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher of the stress response, “try to explain a thirty-year mortgage to a hippo, and it will have no idea what you are talking about.”  Hippos, and other animals in the wild, do not experience accumulated stress.  For humans, repeatedly turning on the stress response when it’s not needed leads to chronic wear and tear on the brain and the body.

Too Much of a Good Thing

As accumulated stress builds in the nervous system, it becomes a self-fulfilling feedback loop.  The stress response increases the size of the amygdala, a part of our brain that senses danger and generates a fear/anxiety response.  The more we initiate the stress response, the more likely we are to initiate it in the future.  The stress response becomes activated more and more by conditioned cues.  Many people have heard about Pavlov’s experiments with dogs.  After repeatedly ringing a bell while at the same time offering food to the dog, Pavlov found that the dog would eventually begin salivating just by hearing the bell ring, even if food was not present.  As humans, we can start to experience debilitating anxiety from something as simple as the alarm going off in the morning.  We begin to perceive safe people and situations as potentially dangerous.  On the other hand, and equally as problematic, we can mentally block out our awareness of the stress response, even when it is actually needed to respond to threat.  We begin to have difficulty determining who is a safe person to be with, and who is not.

We Can Do Something About It

Dr. Sapolsky and other researchers are working on sophisticated approaches to reducing the physiological effects of stress through gene therapy and other methods.  These treatments may be years and years away.  Is there anything we can do about accumulated stress right now?  Yes!  My approach incorporates methods that address stress in both a “top-down” and “bottom-up” way.  Somatic Experiencing ® is a holistic, integrative form of therapy that utilizes techniques common to well-known therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness, and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), in combination with exercises that increase awareness of and tolerance for physical sensation.  This can be an effective way to shift ingrained patterns of response in a direction that creates less stress on the body, and thus more well-being.  While it is not a medical treatment that directly treats physical ailments, it does help to decrease the conditioned associations that amplify the stress response.  The goal is for you to internally experience less stress, experience it less often, and also have a less intense response to external stressors.  Additionally, I will work with you to develop more coping skills to respond to those stressors more effectively.

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