Monday, February 18, 2013

Stress and Psychosomatic Disorders

It has been known for a long time that negative emotions are tied to specific diseases -- i.e. fears lead to cardiovascular diseases, anger damages liver, apathy affects the stomach. They all have something in common - stress. But how should we deal with stress?

What is stress? Why does it happen? Is it always bad?

Stress is an inevitable part of everyday life. Minor stresses are harmless (and even helpful at times), however, negative, long-lasting stress can be debilitating to one's health.

The author of the theory of stress, well-known Canadian scientist Hans Selye, has determined stress as a set of typical genetically-programmed nonspecific reactions of an organism aimed for its survival by means of its "fight or flight" response. Minor effects of negative factors do not usually cause stress. It happens when the stress factors (stressors) surpass our natural ability to handle them. The stressors cause the body to change its way of functioning by mobilizing its resources to cope with danger (raise blood pumping and dilate airways to increase oxygen intake, increase blood clotting, etc.) or adapting to it. This is the main purpose of stress response.

A typical stress response has 3 phases:

  1. Alertness - to mobilize all protective means of the body.

  2. Stabilization - balanced use of the body's adaptive capabilities.

  3. Exhaustion - final phase coming after the prolonged effects of stressors have used up all adaptive reserves of the body.

Some stress is a natural part of life, which in Selye's opinion creates a "taste of life". Stress stimulates us in complex processes at work, in creative endeavors, and in competition. However, when the strong influence of stressors become excessive and constant, they drain our protective means and can lead to illness, or even cause neurotic or psychosomatic disorders.

Different people react to stressors differently. Some react proactively, fighting the danger. Others react passively and give up quickly. Generally these types of reaction cause specific types of disorders. Based on numerous clinical observations, doctors have discovered that most stressors typically cause hypertension, ulcer, heart attack, stroke, cardiac arrhythmias, etc. Anger that is not expressed could cause rheumatoid arthritis, skin problems, migraine, indigestion, etc.

Why does stress cause somatic disorders? When we are feeling strong negative emotions, significant physical changes happen in the body causing excessive energy production. Moreover, a prolonged negative psychological attitude/personality often promotes faster exhaustion of the body's protective means.

Connection between stress and disease.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have discovered strong connection between certain personality traits on one end and somatic disorders on the other. Example: individuals trying to fit in a certain position/job that doesn't fit their personality or capabilities have a higher chance to develop cardiovascular diseases. Chronic coronary disease is more typical for proactive goal-oriented, ambitious and less tolerant individuals.

Individuals suffering from stomach ulcers are typically very anxious and irritable. They are very conscientious, but usually have a low self-esteem, are vulnerable, shy, sensitive and hypochondriac. These individuals always try to do more than they are capable of. They tend to overcome difficulties having very high level of anxiety.

The level of stress-related pathological changes in the body is usually linked with personal assessment of the situation, which in turn depends on feelings of personal responsibility. The signs of emotional tension appearing in stressful situations tend to intensify when there is a lack of physical activity.

Stress Disorders.

There is no definite list of stress-related disorders. The same type of disease could have a stress origin or could be caused by something else. Many different factors may be combined with the stress in a person's life that have a negative influence on the body function. The combination of negative factors is particularly dangerous because it creates more chances to develop certain diseases.

Among the many stress-related disorders the main ones are neuroses - mental imbalance caused by prolonged psycho-emotional experience, mental and physical strain, lack of rest or sleep, long-lasting internal struggling, inhibited feelings of grief, anger or suffering. Some somatic diseases may also cause neurosis as well.

Neurosis may appear due to having a lack of options to resolve a serious problem. It could happen when a person tries to resolve a problem, but is unable to do it. This leads to increased sensitivity or irritability to the problem making an individual more emotional. This then causes the person to experience various pains in response to the effect of stressors.

Stress reactions are very different.

A satisfactory level of emotional gain makes a person perform better. However prolonged emotional strain eventually leads to a drop in performance. The more complex the activity is, the quicker the person becomes distressed, causing feelings of fatigue, apathy, loss of concentration, distraction and memory difficulties.

Some people may react to stress in a very active manner while the others would give up quickly. A proactive response may lead to snap decisions that focus on only the main aspects of the problem. This hyperactive-compulsive reaction leads to a significant increase in making mistakes while the activity remains strong or even increased. As opposed to this, an inhibited-reaction leads to slower thinking , and increases forward movement in the learning process.

The emotional climate at work and home plays a major role in maintaining mental and physical health. Everybody's mood depends a lot on the mood of the people who surround him/her, and it shows up in their words, mimics and behavior. When communicating with other people, one tends to take on their optimism or depression. Thus mutual sympathies become typical signs of good atmosphere in the group of co-workers or family members.

Nobody is immune from accidents, irreplaceable losses or insoluble problems. However, it isn't good to focus on negative emotions too long or let depression overwhelm you. For your health, it is much better to focus on trying to find a positive solution.

Ways to relieve stress.

Isometric exercises. This method is based on putting tension on certain muscles and then relaxing them in a repeated, rhythmic way. An example might be making a fist and then relaxing it, or put your hands behind your head and press it forward straining neck muscles to force back, then press your feet to the ground and relax. These simple exercises can be used in any situation to achieve relaxation.

Autogenic training. This is a well-known method of relaxation. A deep relaxation that people usually feel after hypnosis can be achieved by means of self-suggestive techniques. You can sit quietly and give yourself simple commands like: I'm feeling calm, I'm feeling heavy, My arms and legs are feeling warm and heavy. To get really good at this, you must practice it a few times. The effect of this technique could become stronger if deep-breathing is used during the exercise.

Meditation. All known meditation techniques are targeted to focus your thoughts and attention on a single thing. It could be music, a mantra or your own breathing. All other thoughts become shut off, and other distractions are completely ignored. Such concentration helps you to achieve a deep relaxation. Deep breathing in combination with a specific sitting posture and closed eyes helps to achieve a full rest.

Biofeedback training. For the past few decades biofeedback has become very popular among stress- management professionals. The concept of biofeedback training is based on measuring certain physical parameters that can be directly or indirectly controlled. The subject/person can see the actual levels while being given specific suggestive or controlling commands that affects the parameter being measured. An example is -- skin temperature is being continuously measured while suggestive thoughts are being induced aimed to relax muscles. Muscle relaxation causes peripheral blood vessels to dilate and increase blood flow in limbs, which in turn causes skin temperature to rise. The temperature level is being displayed to the subject along with the continuation of giving suggestive thoughts. Thus the subject establishes a feedback leading to deeper relaxation.

For the past decade a special biofeedback method has gained much attention in the stress-management field. It is based on using deep rhythmic breathing positively affecting the heart rhythm by causing it to oscillate coherently with breathing pace. This method involves a very important physiological mechanism of baroreflex that is responsible for body's adaptation to various factors (physical exertion, psycho-emotional stresses) and for achieving the body's internal homeostasis. This technique is a special workout to this mechanism, by training and toning it in a similar way to physical exercise for muscles and cardiovascular system.

During the training session, your heart rate is being measured and displayed. At the same time a visual and/or audio pacer is presented to trainee to maintain specific rhythm of breathing. Using a special mathematical algorhythm an influence of paced breathing on heart rhythm is being evaluated and continuously displayed. This algorhythm analyzes a level of consistency between your heart rhythm and breathing pace at a very specific rate of around 6 breaths per minute.

The immediate effect of such training is stress relief and bringing back the body's inner balance. Regular use of this technique causes various positive effects such as lowering blood pressure, strengthening immune system, improving digestion, normalizing metabolic processes and chemical balance.

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