Fitness Magazine

About Stress: Acute Versus Chronic

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina
About Stress: Acute Versus ChronicWe go on and on about stress management on this blog, don’t we? Well, that’s because the more we learn about the effects of chronic stress on the body, mind, and emotions, and the relationship between chronic stress and various diseases of aging, such as heart disease and hypertension, the more convinced we are that practicing yoga for stress management is one of the most important things you can do to promote healthy aging in the long term and enhance the quality of your life in the short term. 
But even though we think managing stress levels is so critical, it’s important to understand that stress in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, in certain situations, it’s actually a good thing. So today I’m going to do a little compare and contrast between acute and chronic stress and discuss how your nervous system responds to both. Yes, it’s another one of my little anatomy lessons but it is one that can have a profound effect on your physical, mental, and emotional health.About Acute StressAbout Stress: Acute Versus ChronicIt was 5:04 on October 17, 1989 when the Loma Prieta earthquake hit. I was about to leave my Berkeley house to go grocery shopping with my five year old daughter at my side and my baby in his stroller when I felt such a violent shaking that I knew the quake was going to be a big one. I quickly looked around the house to find the safest place for us to be, and then grabbed my daughter and moved the three of us under a reinforced doorway. It turned out that our lives weren’t really in danger—though the framed artwork over the fireplace did come crashing down—but it was good to know that in an emergency, I could think and move with speed and clarity even while the floor underneath me was rolling and shaking. Although I didn’t realize it at the time—I was too busy reacting in the moment—my nervous system had switched into Stress mode (aka Fight or Flight mode, which is sometimes called Tend and Befriend for women). This is a dramatic example of a time in my life where I experienced acute stress. In my post Life-Changer: Understanding Your Autonomic Nervous System, I described how your nervous system responds to perceived danger or extreme physical activity. Preparing you to fight, run, or take evasive action, your autonomic nervous system releases hormones—adrenaline and noradrenaline—to increase your heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow to the muscles, and widens (dilates) your airways to make breathing easier. It also causes your body to release stored energy and increases muscle strength. And to increase your ability to assess your current situation and make important decisions, your nervous system causes your mind to race. So during that earthquake, my nervous system was doing just what it needed to do!After the quaking stopped, we went outside onto the street to see what happened to the neighborhood. When we realized that everyone and their homes were all fine, we started to calm down. There was still some stress and worry while we waited to hear that my husband was safe and for him then to get home (which took several hours). My baby, of course, had no clue what was going on and I put him down at the usual time, but my daughter had to see her father before she could even think of going to sleep so I had her stay up with me (of course, even children feel stress).By the next day, safe and reunited, we were feeling pretty normal as we dealt with the aftermath, like taking the brick chimney down (it had shaken dangerously loose). Of course, we were sad and horrified at the loss of life and property that occurred as a result of the quake, especially in nearby Oakland, where the double decker freeway collapsed. But our nervous systems recovered pretty quickly. After a bout of acute stress, you settle back down to normal. Your nervous system reduces the levels of stress hormones in your body, slowing your heart rate, decreasing blood pressure, reducing oxygen intake, and so on—your organs don’t need to work as hard now that the stressful situation has passed. And, now that you’re out of danger, your racing mind will also slow down. Your nervous system also stimulates your digestive tract to process food, eliminate waste, and use the energy from the processed food to restore and build tissues. After all, you need to build yourself back up after being depleted by a period of stress. Acute stress is a short-lived episode that is a natural, healthy response to danger, a perceived threat, or a physical challenge. And this is something we cannot and should not eliminate from our lives because even if we’re not living not in an earthquake zone, we all need to get out of danger sometimes, whether that means getting out of the way of an oncoming car or protecting a family member from a threat. But our stress response also prepares us for some really good things in life, including running a race, traveling to a foreign country, having a creative brainstorm, falling in love with someone, and even having an orgasm. About Chronic Stress
About Stress: Acute Versus Chronic
Back in the early nineties when my husband and I were raising our two children, I had a job as the documentation manager and lead technical writer at a software start-up company. As you might imagine, the pressure was intense as our small company struggled to meet our first deadline, the first test of the product by real customers (who needed my manuals to teach them how to use the product!) and balancing my work/home life was a definite challenge. As the deadline approached, I started working overtime. And I began having terrible insomnia—I could fall asleep but would be wide awake after just a couple of hours. I also started losing weight because the stress made me so feel nauseated that I lost my appetite.Even though I wasn’t in the middle of an emergency, my nervous system was doing the same thing it had been doing during the earthquake, keeping my body and mind ready for fight or flight, but it was now a problem because the stress never let up and I had no chance to rest and recuperate. Eventually I was so anxious, exhausted and nauseated that even though I met my deadline (and the company went on to success), I couldn’t bounce back to normal health and my stress-related problems continued to plague me. It took a year and half of therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes to recover completely. (This was before I had the knowledge I do now both of the nervous system and how yoga can help.)Unlike acute stress, which is short-lived and in response to a single event, chronic stress is ongoing stress that never lets up. Many different life circumstances can cause chronic stress, from job pressures, marriage or family problems, and financial or health problems to living in a stressful environment, such as a dangerous neighborhood or war zone. But regardless of the reasons, when your nervous system is continuously on the alert, and your body and mind never have a chance to recover and recuperate, your body and mind become overtaxed. And some of the serious health problems that can be caused by chronic stress include:
  • heart disease 
  • hypertension (high blood pressure) 
  • insomnia and/or fatigue 
  • digestive disorders 
  • headaches 
  • chronic anxiety or depression 
  • weakened immune system 
But helping you manage chronic stress is where yoga really shines. Sometimes you can change your circumstances and your yoga practice can help support you through those changes, but other times circumstances are out of your control. Either way, yogic stress management practices (see The Relaxation Response and Yoga) and yoga philosophy (see Why You Should Study Yoga Philosophy) can help you face difficult challenges while at the same dialing down your stress levels. Maybe you will even be able to move toward equanimity. After all, the Bhagavad Gita defines a yogi as: “Who unperturbed by changing conditions sits apart and watches and says “the powers of nature go round”, and remains firm and shakes not. —trans. by Juan MascaroAbout Stress: Acute Versus ChronicSubscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° Join this site with Google Friend Connect

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