Features, What The Health

Let’s Talk About Stress, Baby…

Image of Elizabeth Serieux PhD, MPH
By Elizabeth Serieux PhD, MPH

THOSE of us “experienced” enough to have enjoyed Salt n Pepa’s song from the 90s, “Let’s Talk About Sex,” hopefully read (or sang) the title of this week’s article to that beat! If you don’t quite know the song, look it up, it’s worth it! Essentially, the song encouraged open, honest dialogue about sex and the singers mused that it probably wouldn’t be played on the radio because it dared to address such a taboo topic.

These days, things have changed somewhat and some even argue that the pendulum has swung too far the other way, but I digress — that’s for another time. Back to the topic at hand: let’s talk about stress, baby!

One of the first — and probably the most important — similarities between sex and stress is that much like unprotected sex, stress presents a huge threat to our collective health and wellbeing. So, since (borrowing another line from my childhood, this time from G.I. Joe), “knowing is half the battle”, let’s get into what exactly stress is.

At the most basic level, stress is the body’s response to demands that have been placed on it. These demands, or stressors, come in various forms and include pressures of work, school, major life events such as marriage or divorce, or mundane everyday events like traffic. When placed in these situations, the body responds and this response, the stress response — also called the ‘fight or flight response’, as the name implies — prepares the body to, you guessed it, either fight to defend itself or take flight to protect itself.

From an evolutionary perspective, this response developed to help us deal with life-threatening situations, and in today’s world where the dangers aren’t quite the same and we don’t need to fight or take flight quite as often, the stress response itself, unchecked, presents a threat to health. When our stress response is activated, a lot of changes take place in the body: our heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, blood sugar level increases, muscle tension increases and digestion slows or stops altogether. Our emotional state is also altered and we may become more prone to aggression as well as experience increased levels of anxiety.

Now, none of this would be a problem if we were able to return to a state of relaxation or homeostasis after the stressor or “threat” has been dealt with, that is, after we’ve fought or run away. However, the problem is that in today’s world we are constantly exposed to situations that induce the stress response and we cannot adequately deal with these stressors by fighting or running away.

In essence, our stress response is constantly being switched on or activated, but it is not getting switched off as it should. It is this state of chronic or ongoing stress which presents a huge problem to our health, wellbeing and quality of life we can enjoy as individuals and as a collective society. Just imagine for instance, what goes on in the body of the individual who has to drive between Gros Islet and Castries at least twice every day and then expand outward and imagine the generalized anxiety and heightened aggression in all the drivers as a whole, resulting in the low levels of courtesy and even “road rage” we encounter on the route. Our individual health is affected and our sense of community is assaulted; neither of these, left unchecked, will ever lead to a good outcome.

The heart of the matter is that a stress response which continues without a relaxation response is called chronic stress and this is dangerous to health and life. So, what can we do as individuals to protect our health and as a society to protect our sense of community and cohesion? We can eliminate or reduce the stressors and find ways to induce the relaxation response when the stress response has been activated.

From an individual standpoint, the most effective things we can do are encapsulated in the following steps: (1) identify the situations in our lives that activate our stress response, (2) identify ways to eliminate those situations, if possible, or to reduce the frequency with which we find ourselves in those situations (this can include reframing our perspectives and redefining our contexts), and (3) find ways to deliberately and actively switch off or “turn down” the stress response and bring our bodies back to a state of relaxation or homeostasis.

As a society, with a government, we are responsible for creating and maintaining an environment which promotes health and productivity for all and there are also many things we can do. However, for this week, let’s stick to what we can do to help ourselves as individuals and so your homework is to take 15 minutes and write down your own answers to points (1), (2) and (3) mentioned earlier in this article. Keep your sheet of paper with your responses and in next week’s article we will define our stress reduction strategies in more detail.

As always, thank you for reading and for questions/comments, you can reach me at [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend