Indelible Scar of Stress

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” – Hans Selye, MD, PhD


There it is in a nutshell.  Stress is essential to our survival and takes a little bit of our life force from us at the same time.  Dr. Selye is credited with the discovery of stress and giving it its name in the 1930’s.  Stress like many great scientific discoveries was an accidental discovery.


Dr. Selye was a young promising endocrinologist in search of a new hormone. He began injecting an ovarian extract into lab rats when he thought he hit the jackpot.  He was 28 years old and already discovered a new hormone!


This hormone, so he thought, was causing swollen adrenal glands.  These are the glands that produce cortisol, adrenaline, and aldosterone.  We knew then that these chemicals increase your heart rate, increase blood pressure, increase blood sugar levels, decrease immune system, enhance your brain’s use of glucose, and couches nonessential activities like digestion, reproductive systems, and growth processes.  


Next Dr. Selye observed that the test subjects developed atrophy of the thymus glands which play a critical role in a healthy immune system.  The thymus gland trains T-cells which defends against pathogens, bacteria, viruses, and fungi.  The Thymus gland also neutralizes T-cells that have gone rogue attacking our own body as if it were a foreign object.  This new discovery might mean a great deal to immunocompromised patients.


To great disappointment, he repeated the experiment over and over with other extracts.  He discovered that no matter what he injected into the rats they developed the same symptoms.  Therefore, he could not say exactly what was eliciting this response of swollen adrenal glands, bleeding stomach ulcers, and shrunken thymus glands.  He followed the breadcrumbs to a certain commonality in his experiments. It was not what was in the injection, it was the process of injecting the lab subjects!


As a pediatrician, I can tell you that our young patients often develop a common response to seeing our nurse, Ms. Denise.  It begins with a tenseness in the muscles, a dilation of the eyes, and a more emotional state than normal.  Typically followed by a preventative plea, “No, I don’t want a shot today!”  


Dr. Seyle must have had a heavier hand than our Ms. Denise.  The lab rats were developing what Dr. Seyle originally called ‘non-specific unpleasantness.” Cornered, caught, stuck, injected, and dropped the lab rats developed swollen adrenal glands, shrunken thymus glands, and bleeding stomach ulcers– some of the hallmarks of stress.


The Stress Response


In its simplest form stress is your body’s response to a demand.  The demand may be physical, mental, or emotional.  Whether or not the stressor is real or imagined is of no consequence as the results are very real.


3 Stages of Stress Response


Dr. Sayle created a useful three-stage model identifying what we now refer to as the Hypothalamus, Pituitary, Adrenal (HPA) Axis.  


Stage 1: Alarm

Our first reaction, alarm, is triggered by being upset by physical, emotional, or mental stimuli. The hypothalamus raises our biological alarm system by identifying threats. The hypothalamus bypasses our logic and reason which is necessary for life or death situations.  This is why we literally sense threats before we can process or conceptualize what is happening.  If a threat is determined we get flooded with chemical messengers and hormones that prepare us for fight or flight.  Adrenaline begins coursing through our veins and our metabolism changes.  Our lungs open up to allow for more oxygen to our muscles and our brain.  Our blood pressure and heart rate rise to the occasion.  Our memory gets enhanced to record these experiences for future reference or reference past encounters.  Though, resources are finite and costly when stepping on our biological gas pedal.  Energy is redirected from less immediate tasks.  We stop growing, stop repairing, stop healing, stop digesting, and stop reproducing.


Stage 2: Resistance

If we do not remove ourselves from the perceived threat then we begin to fatigue.  We enter into Stage 2 of stress response which is appropriately called resistance.  We resist our perceived aggressor, we resist surrender, we resist rest and relaxation.  Glucose is removed from stores and finds its way back into the bloodstream.  Adrenaline gives way to cortisol for longer-term energy.  It becomes increasingly more difficult to maintain our alertness, strength and stamina.  Frustration and anxiety are commonly experienced. Homeostatic pressures build for us to return to a neutral state. We require relief from our stressor stimuli less we progress into the third stage of Stress Response.


Stage 3: Exhaustion

If we do not find refuge from chronic stress, or repeatedly bounce between alarm and resistance, we become physically, emotionally, and mentally depleted.  Our glands and organs are already depleted.  Our immune system is all but shut down.  We are literally sick and tired.  Our spirits become defeated and we can succumb easily to depression.  Nobody wants to be here.


Mind Body Spirit


Stress response and HPA axis are the perfect embodiment of mind body and spirit.  Here we see how our thoughts have a bearing on our bodies and our spirits.  There was a study done in Germany that looked at two headmasters from 2 different group homes.  While not the most academically rigorous it did have its merits.  One of the headmasters was thought to have been a bit more caring while the other was noticeably more stern.  It was observed that the children of the first group home with the more caring headmaster grew faster and taller than the children of the other environment.  After a period of time the headmasters switched homes and again the children with the more caring headmaster posted more positive physical growth versus the other group home.  One might expect that a certain amount of growth was expected from the late bloomers, but the caring headmaster had brought with him some of his favorite children whom also continued to grow at accelerated rates.  The thought is that the children lived under stress with the stern headmaster which put the breaks on growth.  

There is another story of the effects of stress on growth which is somewhat more well known.  When a mother lost her eldest child she was overcome with depression and treated her living son with disregard.  “Is that… oh it’s just you.”  It may have been the trauma of his childhood that lead to his psychogenic dwarfism and having never conceived a child in marriage later in life.  This is the true story of J.M. Barrie who created none other than the Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.



Neutrality of Stress

Our core values and beliefs will exert the greatest influence over our reaction to stress.  Dr. Selye noted, “It is not stress that kills us. It is our reaction to stress.”


Most stimuli are neutral, but through our personal filters, we allow them to become stressors that elicit our stress response. Not every stimulus is a hungry lion trying to make a meal out of us, not every stimulus requires the race or fight of our lives. The magnitude of our stress response is mediated by our mental attitudes towards the stimuli.  Traffic is an excellent example.  Traffic is really a neutral event that poses no threat to ourselves.  Two people sitting in the same traffic, having the same stressor, may have very different stress responses to this scenario.  My friend’s wife never seems to be bothered by traffic, partly because she is from Manila and very little compares to it, partly because she didn’t have a car in Manila so having A/C is a luxury, and partly because she views car time as family time.  Meanwhile, others suffer road rage with the harshest of consequences.


Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers


In his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers Stanford University biologist Robert M. Sapolsky brilliantly explains why Zebras aren’t suffering from stress like humans do.  After the Zebra launches into flight from a lion on the savannah he quickly puts the whole thing behind him and goes back to enjoying the grass.  For all that humans are, we are a thoughtful bunch of mammals.  We tend to spend too much of our faculties thinking about our past pains and future pains that have yet exist.  We live in a state of chronic stress thinking of stressful situations raising the alarm and putting our foot back on the biological gas pedal until we are running on empty.


Sapolsky goes on to explain, “Chronic stress has the ability to suppress our immunity below baseline. Aids has taught us that if you suppress the immune system sufficiently, a thirty-year-old will fester with cancers and pneumonias that doctors used to see once in an elderly patient during a fifty-year career.”


Dr. Selye put it this way, “Stress in addition to being itself, was also the cause of itself, and the result of itself.”


5 Ways to Relieve Stress

  1. Counting and breathing.  There is a reason this is still part of our culture because it is effective.  We become more aware of the present moment while letting go of our thoughts and feelings.
  2. Cultivating the attitude of gratitude. We can’t be upset if we are grateful.
  3. Healthy stress relievers.  Sure eating ice cream or having a glass of wine helps dull the pain.  So does a swim, a run, a bicycle trip, or a yoga class.
  4. Write. Letting go of your feelings and putting your thoughts on paper will help free your mind and lighten your heart.
  5. Service. Consider some casual volunteering to connect with others emotionally and spiritually.  

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