It seems hard to believe, but the word “stress” as it is used in today’s world, only came into existence in the 1930s, and moved into popular culture in the late 1950s. Because it is a relatively modern word, it is used unchanged in many languages. In German it would be “der stress,” in French, “il stress” and so on. In Chinese calligraphy there is no one character or word to signify stress, instead they use two – an upper character for danger and a lower one representing opportunity, which more accurately translates into “crisis.”
The Father of Stress
Endocrinologist, Han Selye, MD, Ph.D, D.Sc. (1907-1982) is considered to be one of the early pioneers in stress research. It was Selye who coined the terms “stress” and “stressor,” defining stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant to unpleasant conditions.”
In 1936 he identified what is referred to as the “General Adaptation Syndrome” – the three stages of adaptation a person goes through as a reaction to a psychological or physical demand. They are:
- Alarm – This is when the body recognizes a threat or some kind of challenge and the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, producing a “flight or fight” response. Adrenaline (epinephrine), noradrenaline (norepinephrine) and cortisol (hydrocortisone) are produced by the adrenal glands. The parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) system is deactivated. (Note: Newer research also includes a “freeze” response, common in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.)
- Resistance – The body attempts to adapt to, or cope with, a persistent challenging situation. Hopefully, during this stage the source of the stress will be resolved and the body begins to recover and restore balance. This stage requires physiological resources, which, if not quickly resolved, can eventually be depleted and lead to exhaustion.
- Exhaustion – This stage does not always occur, but if it does then the stressor has lasted too long and will start to cause damage to the body, including a depressed immune system. There can be damage to nerve cells in both tissues and organs. Thought processes and memory may become impaired. The mind and body are unable to maintain normal function even after the stressor itself has subsided and symptoms may reappear (sweating, increased heart rate, dizziness, sleep dysfunction, etc.).
If the stages of resistance and exhaustion last for an extended period of time both psychological and physical illnesses can manifest, including but not limited to diabetes, ulcers, digestive problems, immune system diseases, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression.
Good Stress versus Bad Stress
In 1975 Selye made a distinction between good and bad stress. The challenges or changes a person feels good about, he called “eustress”; those a person feels bad about was referred to as “distress.” Both of these, he observed, resulted in the activation of the General Adaptation Syndrome. The basic difference between the two is in how an individual reacts and accepts the stressor. The same stressor can be perceived differently by various individuals – for one person a trip to a new place can be seen as an exciting adventure, for another it can be a fear of the unknown. It depends on the person’s expectations as well as his or her previous experiences. Both eustress and distress, claimed Selye, will affect the body’s defense mechanisms.
Modern Research Into Stress
It wasn’t until the 1960s that academic psychologists began to incorporate Selye’s ideas into their practices – seeking to calculate and understand “life stress” by creating methods to score significant life events. At that time researchers began to study and ultimately realize the correlation between stress and disease. Since then scientists and other researchers have focused on trying to understand how stress relates to all areas of physiology and human functioning in general.
Around the same time, and perhaps as an antidote to the newfound realization of the stresses of modern life, massage therapy was moving from the realm of the medical profession into the counterculture world, along with a resurgence of interest in Eastern philosophies, meditation and feminism. Between the 1960s and 1970s health and healing practices from the East, including yoga, acupressure and Traditional Chinese Medicine were introduced into the American mainstream.
In the 1970s the Esalen Institute in California introduced Rolfing, the Feldenkrais Method, Trager and its trademarked Esalen massage method to the human potential movement and the profession of bodywork.
Over the past 50 years more techniques and methods have been added to the repertoire of massage therapists, in part to deal with the physical ills of individuals, but mostly to counter the effects of stress on the body and mind.
How Does Stress Affect The Body?
If a person feels threatened, the body will reorganize its priorities to maintain homeostasis. Resources are moved from one area to another in order to better cope with the stress. These changes include:
- Reduction of digestion and elimination
- Lowering of immune function
- Release of neurotransmitters, producing heightened awareness
- Increase in heart rate and blood pressure
- Less energy going towards cell production and repair
- Hormonal shifts, such as an increased production of adrenalin and cortisol
If these changes are short term and end after the perceived threat has passed, the body will return to normal. If these changes persist well beyond the danger, the body will start to break down and react in ways that are counterproductive to good health, including:
- Abnormal sleep patterns (too much or too little sleep)
- Eating disorders (over or under eating to the point of obesity or anorexia)
- Cardiovascular problems (leading to heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure)
- Digestive problems (such as Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, intestinal cramps, diarrhea, constipation)
- Muscular aches and pains
- Immune system disorders (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, etc.)
- Hormonal disorders (hyper-, hypothyroid, diabetes, etc.)
- Skin problems (unidentified rashes, eczema, psoriasis, hives, etc.)
Over the past 20 to 30 years the area of stress management has become one of the medical profession’s greatest concerns. General practitioners, various specialties within the profession, psychologists and complementary care workers, including bodyworkers such as massage therapists, have devoted a lot of their time trying to reduce and relieve stress in their clients.
For the most part it may turn out that stress cannot be totally avoided, but there are ways to build energy reserves and reduce the effect stress has on life.
- Practice deep breathing – Breathing is necessary for life. Breathing deeply gives the body an abundance of this requirement, which in turn helps to decrease stress and anxiety.
- Drink a lot of water – Drinking a lot of clean, pure water is also vital for life. Taking in an adequate amount of water helps to eliminate toxins and metabolic waste.
- Eat healthy foods – Eating fresh, unprocessed foods gives the body the balance of minerals, vitamins and nourishments it needs to maintain good health.
- Meditate and pray – Putting aside time for peace and quiet helps to relax both the mind and body.
- Exercise moderately – Too much or too little exercise can cause tension as well as exhaustion in the body. Moderate exercise is energizing. It helps to increase circulation and gives a boost to the immune system.
- Find balance in your life – Make time for both work and play. Include creativity in your life. Too much of any one activity is not good and can lead to burnout or even physical illness.
- Be kind – Be kind not only to others, but to yourself as well. Nurturing relationships lends itself to creating a support system that may be needed in times of extreme stress.
- Get a regular massage – The act of giving and receiving a massage increases the production of oxytocin and other hormones that promote relaxation. It also reduces the production of stress hormones. Massage therapy increases blood and lymph circulation and promotes the elimination of toxins that accumulate in the body during stress.
Above all remember to be patient with yourself and others. The stress you feel is often relative to how you perceive the world around you.
To quote the Dalai Lama, “If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to
worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then also there is no need to worry.”