The Science Behind Stress
Stress has played an important role in the development of man. The fight-or-flight reaction is humankind's primitive and automatic response that prepares the body to flee from a perceived attack or threat to survival. When we experience stress, a bodily reaction is triggered, bypassing our logical mind.
The parasympathetic system, regulated by the brain, calms the body while the sympathetic system prepares the body for the fight-or-flight reaction. This “hard-wired” response is both psychological and physical in nature and causes your heart to beat faster, your muscles to tense, your palms to sweat, and your breathing rate and blood pressure to increase. And it's not just physical threats that cause this response: psychological trauma can also inflame the emotional centers of the brain, causing a constant outflow of the fight-or-flight reaction. This physiological activity may cause your symptoms to act up, too.
These days, there aren't a lot of physical stressors such as sabertoothed tigers that threaten you. Today's stressors are psychological in nature: deadlines at work, rush-hour traffic, and cancelled flights. Having MS in itself is a stressor. And since you can't really “run” anywhere, you are faced with having to learn how to handle stress within the contours of your life.
Chronic stress isn't good for anyone, and you might be worried that it isn't good for MS either. But having MS is stressful in itself, even without the rest of the outside stressors most people contend with. So, while stress may be hard for you to avoid, the trick is to learn how to manage it successfully and minimize its effects on your health and well-being.
Stress management can be complicated; people contend with different types of stress on a daily basis and each one has its own characteristics, duration, and treatment. Here's a look at the three types of stress:
Acute stress. This is the most common form of stress and it hails from the everyday pressures and demands of life. In other words, it's a reality all people deal with. Since it's part of the fight-or-flight reaction, acute stress is okay in small doses. It's short-term, too, so for the most part it doesn't have the ability to cause significant damage that long-term stress does.
Episodic acute stress. Someone suffering from this form of stress is living a busy, chaotic life and tends to be irritable, tense, and short on patience. “Worry warts” and type A personalities tend to suffer from episodic acute stress. Symptoms include headaches, hypertension, chest pain, and heart disease.
Chronic stress. This type of stress wears you down, day after day, year after year. It is caused by being exposed to long-term stressors such as unhappy marriages or careers. If an individual sees no hope in improving his situation, he often gives up looking for solutions. Chronic stress can lead to depression and a host of physical ailments, such as heart disease.
Knowing the different types of stress is important. Some stress can motivate you to reach a deadline, while other types can wreak havoc on your life. Unfortunately, your body doesn't make the distinction between physical or psychological stress, so facing a medical test or a screaming toddler can both put you into overdrive. That's because the fight-or-flight reaction kicks in to help you cope with the perceived threat. When the demands of life exceed your ability to cope, stress can harm your physical and mental well-being.