We are evolutionarily wired for stress. For our early ancestors, inhabiting a natural world beset with predatory dangers the flight/fight response was crucial to survival. The same alarm system exists today for the same survival purpose evolution originally intended.
What is different is that today the more likely sources of threat ( at least for those of us living in the industrialised world) are emotional. Our biology, psychology and physiology are interlinked in subtle and complex ways, all with implications for our health and well being.
A stress response is activated when an event, physical or emotional is perceived as threatening. As human beings we make multiple assessments via our central nervous system to interpret a stimulus and prepare ourselves to respond. Our response will be a combination of physiological and behavioural adjustments commensurate with the perceived degree of threat. What is “commensurate” varies from person to person. Each stress event is experienced in the moment but may have resonance from the past. Our personal histories as well as our dispositions influence our response to a stressful event.
Acute v chronic stress
Whilst on the one hand stress can be understood as a physiological event vital to survival, on the other it is increasingly understood to have a corrosive effect that impacts negatively on our long term health. Here it is important to distinguish between acute and chronic stress.
Acute stress triggers immediate discharges in the nervous, hormonal and immune systems, activating flight or fight reactions that help us survive imminent danger. These are highly adaptive and highly effective responses. In the case of chronic stress, the same systems are activated(over and over) but without resolution. The effect is elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels which can damage tissue, raise blood pressure and undermine the integrity of our immune functioning.
For many people, functioning with chronically elevated cortisol and stress hormones is normal. The circumstances of our early lives, including our attachments may have necessitated a state of hyper arousal and vigilance. Without any conscious awareness our bodies stress responses can remain highly active. Indeed it may be the absence of stress that creates unease in the individual habituated to its hormonal high but such a state of addiction to our own stress hormones may have serious implications for our long term immune functioning and health.
When we are unaware of what is happening in our bodies we are unable to act in self preserving ways. The same is true of our emotional states. If we are unable to identify what it is we feel, we will struggle to communicate it. Our capacity to identify our emotional states will largely depend upon the messages that were conveyed to us early on by significant others. A child may conclude that “I am not ok when I am angry” for instance, based on the blatant or subtle (verbal and non verbal) responses of a parent/ group of which they are a part. In order to prevent the threat of rejection or shame the child will learn to shutdown or repress the unacceptable expression of anger. This repression if it is to remain successful will require constant vigil and adaptation, such that overtime the legitimate expression of anger will be compromised and confused.
We need to develop a degree of emotional competence and fluency in order to protect against the hidden stresses that can pose such a (ticking time bomb) threat to our health. This means being able to identify and express our emotions effectively, to assert our needs and maintain healthy (physical and emotional) boundaries. It means being able to distinguish between past and present realities such that we cultivate awareness (and compassion) for unmet childhood needs. Remaining disconnected with these aspects of our personal histories can contribute to hidden stress with potentially serious implications for our physical and emotional health and well being.
Gerry Gilmartin is an accredited, registered and experienced psychotherapeutic counsellor. She currently works with individuals (young people/adults) and couples in private practice. Gerry is available at our Brighton and Hove Practice.
Further reading by Gerry Gilmartin –