Chronic Stress: Stress That Won't Stop

Chronic Stress: Stress That Won't Stop

The first person to identify the effects of chronic stress was Hungarian scientist Hans Selye. From Selye’s point of view, stress itself was neither good nor bad—it was simply challenging. He believed that without any stress at all, life would be pretty boring, an endless repetitive round of one familiar thing after another. Selye even dedicated his book The Stress of Life “to those who are not afraid to enjoy the stress of a full life . . .”

How To Enjoy Stress

Many of my patients would be shocked by that sentence. “Enjoystress?” they might say. “How in the world do you expect me to enjoy it?”

The answer lies in one word: balance. For stress to feel like an exhilarating challenge rather than a debilitating drain, it must always be followed by a relaxation response. We draw on our sympathetic nervous system to exert ourselves, and then allow our parasympathetic nervous system to help us relax—and now we’re ready to face the next challenge.

But what if the stress won’t let up? To answer that question, Selye created a three-stage model of the stress response, which he called the General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS. Although we now have more biological detail than when Selye developed the GAS in the 1920s, his model is basically the one we still use.

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First Phase of Stress: Alarm Reaction

The GAS begins with the alarm reaction, the jolt of energy that goes through our bodies when life places an extra demand on us. “Alarm” may be a somewhat misleading term, because this initial jolt of energy is not necessarily frightening. It’s simply the extra energy we muster whenever we’re faced with a challenge. A test, a speech, an unpleasant person—any of these demands require some extra effort to rise to the occasion. The challenge can also be a positive one—a date with someone we really like, the anticipation of an upcoming birthday party, the thrill of playing a game or completing an exciting project at work. Anything that requires something extra from us places an additional demand on our system, whether that “something extra” involves fun or strain—or both.

Second Phase of Stress: Adaptation

When the stress doesn’t stop, however, we move into Selye’s second phase, adaptation, in which we become accustomed to chronic stress. The body isn’t really equipped for continual stress, but it does its best to rise to the occasion—day after day, month after month, year after year. Over time, the combination of insufficient sleep, never-ending demands, and the absence of genuine relaxation takes its toll.

Exhaustion: I Can't Take Any More!

Chronic Stress: Stress That Won't StopThe longer the stress continues, the greater the toll, until eventually our bodies just can’t take it anymore. Our adrenal glands, charged with producing the hormones that help us rev up and rise to the occasion, lose their reserves. In Selye’s final exhaustion phase, our adrenals are so worn out that they can’t produce enough of their energizing hormones. We just don’t have it in us to handle one more emergency or meet one more extra demand. This is the stage at which every little problem starts to seem like a major disaster, when your son spilling his milk or your boss giving you a disapproving look feels like the end of the world. We’ve all been there from time to time. But if this is your normal state most of the time, your system may be seriously out of balance.

Extra Stressors to Watch Out For

Any additional stressor puts more of a strain on your adrenal glands. Accordingly, you’re at greater risk for adrenal dysfunction if you also struggle with:

  • Persistent infection or chronic disease

  • An eating disorder

  • Smoking

  • Addiction to drugs or alcohol

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • One or more allergies, sensitivities, or types of food intolerance

  • Any chronic illness, such as migraine, backache, or asthma

  • Poverty, economic hardship, or simply dealing with the uncertainties of the economy

  • Working a high-stress job, such as a health-care provider, emergency room practitioner, police officer, lawyer, disaster relief worker, midlevel manager, teacher, or shift worker

  • Living or working in a noisy, demanding environment, or otherwise coping with constant noise

  • Owning your own business

  • Providing for your family as the sole or major breadwinner

  • Dealing with sick or aging parents

  • Managing work, motherhood, family responsibilities, and generally trying to “do it all”

Adrenal-Friendly Activities: Ways to Begin to Heal

  • Take two minutes twice a day to meditate—or even one minute, once a day. Just inhale deeply, and then exhale while focusing on your breath.

  • Massage your temples and then your earlobes—a minute each, two times a day.

  • At the end of the day, light a lavender-scented candle and place it by your bed. Lavender helps to quiet the nerves, so take five minutes to breathe in its scent and relax. [Editor's Note: Apply a lavender essential oil scented facial cream when you go to bed. You'll sleep much better.]

  • If you have young children, consider letting them eat first, putting them to bed, and then having an “adult meal” with your partner, a friend, or alone. Light a candle at dinner, too, turn off your cell phones, and enjoy a quiet dinner.

  • Consider devoting half an hour for a bath—even once a week. If you have children, make a bargain with another adult or sitter to safeguard this time.

  • Buy fresh flowers and put them on your desk at work. Remember to look at them and perhaps smell them once every hour.

  • Consider making time for a walk—even for 5 minutes. Try to breathe deeply and let go of work and responsibility; just let your body move.

  • Keep a journal. Even if you only write a sentence or two each day, the time you take to focus on yourself could begin an important shift in focus.

  • Become aware of blocks that you may have to doing these activities, and if you notice that, be gentle with yourself.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher,
Hay House Inc.

This article was excerpted with permission from the book:

Are You Tired and Wired? Your Proven 30-Day Program for Overcoming Adrenal Fatigue and Feeling Fantastic Again  --  by Marcelle Pick.

Are You Tired and Wired? by Marcelle PickWith all the stresses that exist today -- from challenges at home and at work to environmental toxins to chronic health problems -- the adrenal glands, which are responsible for providing the fight-or-flight hormones, can force the body to endure a constant flood of stress hormones that can ultimately lead to multiple health issues, especially severe fatigue. The good news is that through diet, lifestyle adjustments, and reprogramming of stressful emotional patterns this can all be fixed!

Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.

About the Author

Marcelle PickMarcelle Pick is a member of the American Nurses Association, American Nurse Practitioner Association and American Holistic Nurses Association. She has served as Medical Advisor to Healthy Living Magazine, lectured on a variety of topics — including “Alternative Strategies to Healing” and “Body Image” — and appears regularly on television to discuss women’s health. In her practice, she undertakes a holistic approach that not only treats illness, but also helps women make choices in their lives to prevent disease. Visit her website:


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