What is Stress About?

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

This being human, and often a really stressed out human at that, sometimes feels so much more complicated than we ever imagined it would be. Why is that? Over the next while let’s look into this business of being a stressed out human being.

Why should you read further? After all, many of us appreciate the sentiment of Thomas Gray, who wrote, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise”, which may have inspired a T-shirt someone gave me that says, “Therapy is expensive, beer is cheap. What to do? What to do?” But dismaying as it is, research tells us that prolonged psychological stress lurks behind a huge array of medical illnesses and psychological problems. Getting to know our stress is truly a wise and effective step towards sparing ourselves all kinds of misery and illness.

Stress is brought to you by a coordination of brain, body and mind that activates us for action. Long, long ago we were all a part of the food chain, stripped of all of the protective comforts and supports that we take for granted today. Our ancestors had to avoid being injured and killed by others and by the environment in order for life to go on. Nature has always been essentially indifferent to whether we make it or not, but it does have ways of selecting for abilities that are better for the job of survival. Because of this selection, brains and bodies slowly evolved protective ways of reacting to threats to survival.

When we see a threat to our well-being a lot happens simultaneously. For one, our sensory systems lock on to the threat, and all of our senses become heightened. We actually see and hear and smell better. Also, the nervous system and circulating hormones get our body ready for action. Heart rate, blood pressure and breathing all increase and blood is diverted to our major muscles and away from our gut (because we don’t need to digest our lunch if some other animal is digesting us!). The immune system moves to high alert, ready for injury. And there’s lots of emotion. We feel fear, we feel we want to get away, we may feel enraged by the threat. The whole system kicks us into hyper drive, to fight or run for our very life or for the life of a loved one. Together these reactions have tremendous survival value, or at least they did have when we were in the food chain.

This ancient fight-flight-freeze system is still ours today. Although we are now quite removed from the food chain, when we feel stressed we’re feeling the expression of ancient systems that cut their teeth on mortal danger. And we can get quite caught up by these systems. Violent crimes of passion, panicked flight, and freezing on an exam are all examples of this survival system in action.

The short term varieties of stress are interesting for sure. In fact, many of our entertainments draw on stress reactions – thrill ride amusement parks and suspenseful movies are a way of making fear fun! But it’s the long standing stress, the stress from unyielding real and perceived threats, numerous it seems in our lives today, that takes a nasty toll on all of us. Prolonged stress physically harms us, and it can shape our lives, automatically selecting courses of action that may be unwise and pulling us into not-so-healthy methods of coping. More about that next time.

Chronic Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We looked last time at our stress reactions in all their physical and mental glory as prehistoric systems that are on board in all animals, acquired through evolution, because they save lives. I like to remind myself that we are all at the end of a very long family tree of survivors – if any of our remote relatives hadn’t been able to survive, to then conceive and protect their children, we just wouldn’t be here. Stress reactions, in part, got us here.

But just like guests, stress can be tremendous for a while but not without end. Chronic stress is a huge wear and tear problem. Psychological stress can become a 24/7 state of emergency, demanding that our immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, gastric, emotional and thinking systems all work overtime. Without rest and recovery, ongoing psychological stress nibbles away at us from the molecular and cellular levels on up to the levels of our behaviour and our relationships.

For example, research shows that chronic stress influences basic physical systems such as wound healing. One study administered the very same cut to the arms of brave or bribed medical school students at two different times – during the exam period (high stress!!) and during the summer break (ahh, that’s better!), and then watched carefully to see how the cuts healed. They found that greater stress resulted in the simple wounds taking days longer to heal, a result of stress-related changes in immune and inflammatory processes.

Stress-related wear and tear can be seen at the molecular level. Chronic stress can actually shorten our lives because it chemically damages parts of our chromosome structure, the telomeres, which determine, among other things, aging and disease development. There may be some truth to it when Uncle Max said that the strike at work took years off his life. Psychological stress contributes to the majority of visits to family doctors, and some long term studies have shown relations between stress and cancer and between stress and heart disease that are greater than the relation between smoking and those ailments.

And it may be no surprise to know that our levels of stress are increasing. A recent U.S. survey found that 60% of people are more irritable and angry, and more than half said they now lie awake at night because of stress. The economy, future uncertainty, media violence, family strain, illness, addictions – it’s a long list – it all gets to us more deeply than we like to think.

What to practice? All the advice that you may have heard about dealing with your stress is good to heed, but tweak it so that it fits just for you. Maybe ration your diet of the doom and gloom news. Ration the sweets and fats and carbos too. Go for walks. Decrease the drama in your life by watching that voice in your head and how much it complains and grumbles. Even better, watch that voice in your head to see how hard it is being on you. Watch to see when you make critical comparisons. It’s often very helpful to take an inventory of the things that get us worried, angry, impatient, sad or scared. Usually it’s not anything that really matters to the degree that we experienced it to be (“Whoa, I really got bent out of shape because that person was slow in the checkout line!”). It’s a good piece of homework to take on. And maybe take a little time to practice appreciation and gratitude – if we look, we find an awful lot to be delighted by and thankful for.

Thinking and Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Is there any relation between thinking and stress? Can we think ourselves into stress reactions?

It’s an interesting question when you consider that stress is about dealing with threats. Do we threaten ourselves? The evolution of our stress systems was essentially about dealing well with external threats, like severe weather, predators and attacks from our own kind. So how might our own, private thinking get us in to trouble with stress?

Thinking is a way of using what our brain and mind have stored from our experiences in life. If you can imagine what happens in all of the seconds and minutes and hours and days and months and years and decades of experience that our minds register, interpret and store, you can see that we carry a lot in our heads.

Our stream of thought and feeling is very busy. Attempts to estimate how many different thoughts we have each day puts the number at about 65,000. That’s busy!! What are these minds of ours doing?

If you watch your mind for a while you’ll notice that it goes all over the place. Even while you’re reading this you might notice all kinds of things coming up, taking you away for moments here and there. Don’t worry, that’s completely typical of minds. Minds are pretty chaotic. But there are lots of things that our minds do quite predictably. One extremely common mind habit is to go back to the past, to things that we didn’t like, that hurt us, that we felt embarrassed by, that we regret. Our thinking is often trying to set things right (in our own mind), finding who’s to blame, how it would all be different if that thing never happened, how unfair it was, how we could have handled if differently. But here’s the point – can any of us change what has already happened? Truly, what’s done is done and the best we can do is learn and accept.

So if our minds are churning away on distressing things from our pasts that we cannot change, might that not arouse the body and mind into states of stress?

Another place that the mind likes to hang out is in the future. We create all kinds of stories in our heads about how things will be. We don’t mean to, it’s just something that minds do when we’re not minding our mind. We imagine successes, embarrassing failures, and disasters galore. We get pulled into these stories and feel at the same time that they have a truth and certainty in them. Mark Twain wrote,”I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Might a mind churning out an anxious future and a tomorrow gone rotten cause us stress?

What we think of as thinking can be a commotion of ideas, memory fragments, feelings, and physical reactions – things that can’t really be separated any more clearly than can the ingredients of a well-cooked soup. Minds can act like museums of memories that are animated by mean-spirited fiction writers that time travel with abandon – B-movies without end.

What to practice? ‘Getting real’ with yourself might help a lot. Try watching your mind a little every day. Maybe just check in with what’s going on in your mind, looking in as you would look in a window, being honest and not trying to change what you see but just taking it in. If you’re in the past, or in the future, or running yourself down, notice that, notice how it feels. And try to let that moment teach you a little about how your own thinking may be one of the primary agents for generating some of the very stress that you don’t want in your life.

The Importance of Sleep

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Your word for the day is ‘soporific’ , meaning ‘something that causes sleep’. If this column is a soporific for you I’m not offended in the least, because sleep is important and my only intention here is to be helpful. You see, sleep and your brain and your health are intimately linked.

We think of sleep as a kind of shutting down, the opposite of being active. But when we sleep the boss of the show, our brain, is doing anything but sleeping while it’s busy, er, sleeping. Brain recordings during sleep show many distinct types of activity throughout the brain, the most pronounced being the 90 minute see-saw shift between the rapid eye movement (REM) stage and the non-REM stage. This activity is like a continuous 90 minute wave at the home of the Blue Jays, but with lots of other busyness going on at the same time.

Sleep is commonly disturbed by conditions such as pain, depression, bullying, stress and anxiety, by drug and alcohol consumption, trauma and many medical illnesses, making things even more difficult for us.

We might feel like sleep is a soft luxury that we can do without, something that some teens treat like a rented mule. But there’s a huge range of bodily and neural processes that depend on sleep which would be beyond the mother of all soporific textbooks to summarize. Here’s a quick survey to highlight the importance of sleep for all of us, from young to old.

The effect of sleep on our well-being starts before we know it. Women who are having sleep problems before they conceive their baby are more likely to have babies with a sleep disturbance. Children with an elevated body mass index may undergo sleep-related changes in hormonal processes that result in yet more fat storage. The possibility that childhood sleep problems may contribute to adult obesity has been noted for quite some time.

Children’s sleep problems may both be caused by and worsen emotional and behavioural problems. Sleep problems in childhood, as in adulthood, may be a sign of unspoken stress, anxiety or depression, or may be a biological marker for the later development of teen substance abuse.

Sleep helps us learn, and learning is crucial to all that we do. We have brain systems to remember what we’ve done, how to do things, for facts, for feelings. Memory first requires that our experiences in life be properly stored, like a book placed in the correct spot at the library, so that we can find it later. Sleep helps this process of learning at those spooky, ‘plastic’ cellular levels, those places that make us who we are. Research shows that sleep helps the brain’s ability to physically change, which is behind the ability to store and learn. Lots of research is showing that, when we sleep less, we are more forgetful and can have more difficulty learning new things. Sleepy people should be put to bed before being asked to make complex decisions, or fly planes.

Long term alcohol abuse harms sleep patterns even after a long period of sobriety.

Better sleep at night reduces that afternoon dip. Older adults experience more fragmented sleep, greater daytime sleepiness and they nap more often than younger adults. Extremes of sleep duration effect immune and inflammatory systems in the body.

There are lots of ways to improve your sleep hygiene and I suggest you continue to educate yourself. Reduce caffeine use – take none after the morning. Avoid napping because it can be like snacking before a meal. Alcohol and nicotine hurt restorative sleep. And establish a regular sleep schedule (brains love rhythms!). Sweet dreams!


– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Let’s take a break from our usual consideration of stress and the human mind and travel to a new topic – holidays.

The beach, the backyard, the summer fair, the road, the lake all take us away from the routine of work and school, interrupting the rigid patterns of life. The sense of relief that comes from legitimately vacating the stresses of work schedules, pressures and demands makes summer holidays a cherished landmark.

Family vacations contribute to healthy family functioning. Healthy holiday-time together acts as a kind of glue, promoting family bonding and communication and the emergence of new identities (Hey, mom actually knows how to have fun!). This cohesiveness isn’t some sort of mushy frill that we can do without. Family bonding is deeply healthy for teens and parents alike, reducing the incidence of just about every calamity you can imagine. Pre-holiday, as the members of a family dwell in their individual ruts, the barriers from work and school, technology and emotional avoidance chop a family up. The healthy holiday shifts the focus to shared experience if not to each other, giving time and space for loved ones to reconnect, joke around and open up.

You’ll notice that I’ve referred to ‘healthy’ holiday time. Many people see holiday time as an opportunity to set personal bests for getting drunk and stoned or worse. Addiction researchers are quite concerned by the impact that binging holidays have both in the short and long term, particularly with young people. During resort holidays, alcohol and drug use increases significantly for both habitual users and those who refrain at home. That hangovers just get worse as the drinking days wear on says our bodies detest the toxicity, and that a holiday from the holiday is needed.

But increased intoxication is not restricted to any one age group. Advertisers have been clearly teaching us that the good life requires a flow of alcohol and, by extension, drugs. And so vacationers obediently shop the LCBO. While sun screen protects us from the raw rays, protection from the high levels of social pressure isn’t so easy. We wish to belong, and shading ourselves from the social demands to get wasted can be a challenge. Reminding ourselves often of why we’re taking a holiday is one way to keep to ourselves on our own path.

Does a holiday do a good job of smoothing and soothing? Studies have shown that levels of stress and burnout do decrease heartily during a holiday. For the most part we feel better physically and emotionally, sleep better, get along better. For how long does the relief last? Not as long as we’d like. After 3 weeks most of us are back where we left off, indicating that relief fades as quickly as a tan. But the more recuperation we experience during the holiday, the more we’re protected against post-vacation workload stress.

I find it interesting that studies show that more conscientious workers have better moods during holidays, as if taking a break with a clear conscience is cleaner. Here, the rich just get richer. So to get the most out of our holiday it looks like we should get our work done, tie up the loose ends, and resist starting the holiday before it begins.

When you’re planning your upcoming holiday, consider the opportunity at hand. If you’re taking time with your family, look at how you might use that time together for togetherness. I found no research telling us that how much money we spend matters. Whether it’s playing monopoly or travelling to new places, it’s how we vacation that matters.