What stress feels like
“I never get stressed”, my mother would say, even in the throes of hypertension, loss of balance, tinnitus, irritability and nail-biting. My brother and I would press into service all our convincing powers to show her that
stress is not an exotic bird recognisable by its colourful plume.
What she was feeling was stress though she could not believe it. For other moms and friends out there, here is how to recognise the ordinary house-sparrow called stress:
On the outside stress can manifest as muscle ache, fatigue, stiffness, heartburn, flatulence, gastric upset, acidity, headache, nail-biting, sweaty palms and weight gain, especially on the belly. On the inside, stress response includes clenching of teeth, tightening of muscles, increased blood pressure and heart rate, and release of sugars in the blood, among other things. Blood is redirected from our belly to our arms and legs.
To understand the reason, consider the evolutionary significance of stress. It was an emergency mechanism created to survive an immediate threat to life, say to escape an avalanche, stampede or predator attack. It is all over in a few minutes after which we are either safe, or dead. This bodily reaction is meant to give us a concentrated rush of energy and power. However, the body robs Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. It takes the focus away from all functions that are not critical to survival in that moment of peril.
Think of it as the Commanding Officer moving all medicine and food supply of all soldiers to feed the few soldiers who are fighting a war. Smart move, if the battle is over in a few days. Not so smart if, for years on end, all supplies for the lakhs of soldiers in peace stations are routed to the hundred odd soldiers in warzone.
The stress response suppresses immunity, digestion, growth processes and the reproductive system. Clearly, our stress reaction though beneficial in a moment of danger, is not ideal for the long term. It builds up excessive toxicity. Normally the body cleans up once the hazard passes. The body’s hormones and nervous system change to get rid of the toxins, stabilize the heart, and resume all body functions. But what if the stress reaction is not reversed for years on end?
Unfortunately our body gets into the emergency management mode not just for an avalanche, but also in a bad marriage, a frustrating job or a life without meaning. These situations last longer than the few minutes the stress reaction was designed for. These are psychological stressors that, if not dealt with, can last for years, keeping our body in a constant state of emergency.
May be we did not mourn sufficiently a loved one’s death; or we did not regain self-confidence after a terrible financial decision; or we never got over that college-time break-up. When our painful memory is on the top of our mind the slightest trigger spins our brain circuits to relive the episode again. This leads to another gush of the stress response, with adrenaline and cortisone rushing through our system, as if we were vulnerable again.
There is another downside. When our emotions are ‘stuck’ in a trauma, we experience more negative emotions on a day-to-day basis, even when not thinking about it. This means if someone is stressed over past hurt he is more likely to be an irritable person in general. This reminds me of the lyrics of a beautiful ghazal ‘Kabhi kabhi yun bhi hum ne’ by the talented ghazalist Late Jagjit Singh –
Unse bichchde barson beete (We have been separated for years)
Lekin aaj na jaane kyun (And yet, today)
Aangan mei hanste bachchon ko (When children were laughing outside my home)
Bekaran dhamkaya hai (I scolded them without a reason)
The strange thing is that we don’t only stress over negative life situations. Outwardly happy situations like an upcoming wedding, parenthood or a promotion can also lead to stress response in the body. This is because a change is also a challenge. If we feel confident in our resources to rise up to the challenge, then this stress is very beneficial to us. Much more than not being challenged at all. But if we see it as a threat, it will impact us negatively. The internal chemistry will lead to cravings, over-reliance on comfort foods, emotional eating, slowed metabolism and ultimately, to weight gain.