Stress the Hidden Killer

There was once a time when the term “stress” was used mostly within the confines of engineering and was in reference to building design, as in the careful calculations that have to be made in determining how much stress a structure can withstand. More recently, however, the term stress began to creep into the arena of human life as it became increasingly recognized that people, like bridges, airplanes, and ships, can also “fall apart” if the stresses of life prove too great for them to handle.

Until his death just a few years ago, Dr. Hans Selye was recognized as the world’s leading authority on the subject of stress. When Dr. Selye entered the field of medicine, he very soon became fascinated with some of the more abstract and nonspecific aspects of disease. While examining and reviewing the case histories of patients, he would ask his professors perplexing questions which they found to be very frustrating and difficult to deal with. Selye wanted to know, for example, where the general feeling of unwellness came from that accompanied disease and why certain diseases presented themselves without any apparent cause. Unable to give any reasoned answers that would satisfy his inquiring mind, his professors and teachers would tell him not to ask such foolish questions. But Selye did not think his questions were so foolish; and in pursuing the answers, he was destined to discover the relationship of stress to disease, greatly broadening the horizons of medical science.

While working in Montreal, Canada, Selye began experimenting and documenting the effects of stress upon live rats. For example, he devised various means that would subject them to such things as the extremes of cold and physical exertion. Autopsies later revealed that as a consequence of ongoing unresolved stress the rats had developed such conditions as inflamed joints, internal ulcers, kidney and blood vessel disease. Selye found himself looking at certain disease conditions that are so often found in human beings today. He also noted that the rats had enlarged adrenal glands—evidence of excessive hormone production in response to stress. It was then that his mind began to ponder the question: Could it be that certain diseases so common today in humans can also be caused or initiated by stress?

Today, thanks to the pioneering research of Hans Selye and others, we now know that stress can indeed initiate certain disease processes and that it can destroy both a person’s quality and length of life. It can also produce a vague, non-specific feeling of general unwellness that individuals sometimes experience. We must bear in mind that stress in itself is not the only cause of disease; but it is a major component that, along with other causative factors, should not be overlooked. We know, for example, that cancer can be initiated or caused by certain chemicals, irritants, or even viruses. The body also produces a small volume of precancerous, abnormal cells on an ongoing basis, yet this does not mean that a person will necessarily succumb to cancer. If they live a healthy life style and have a strong immune system that aggressively destroys abnormal cells or harmful invasive organisms, they can successfully ward off the deadly killer.

As a result of stress, however, the immune system can become depressed, reducing its capacity to deal with carcinogens. When this takes place, the body’s defenses lose the high ground and cancer or some other disease overcomes the body’s weakened defense system.

As mentioned earlier, Selye discovered that many of his laboratory rats had enlarged adrenal glands. This was indicative of excessive hormonal production, triggered in response to high levels of unresolved stress. We might well ask why the adrenal glands should also figure prominently in the question of stress. A well-known illustration should help to answer this question.

Let us imagine that your cat, having just enjoyed a restful snooze, majestically walks across the lawn, feeling at peace and enjoying the dominion of her front yard. Little does she realize that her dominion is about to be invaded and her sovereignty challenged. Suddenly, the neighbor dog, having slipped his leash, bounds rudely and unannounced into your yard. Like some uncouth ruffian devoid of all etiquette, he propels his uninvited self toward the cat, announcing with yelps and snarls that he is here for “some fun” with Miss Kitty.

As we would expect, Miss Kitty is not amused. In fact, she is far from amused. In an instant, the startled cat’s placid and stately demeanor is changed. Like a lightning flash, she raises her hackles, shows her claws, and hisses at the bold intruder. As the dog draws closer and the situation becomes more desperate for the cat, she raises her shoulders and arches her back yet more. With hair on end like porcupine quills, the little feline is now fully prepared to fight or run for her life! Assuming that Miss Kitty decides that the latter option is the wisest, we see her hastily take off to find refuge up in the apple tree.

Later, after Kitty’s canine friend has left the scene, she ventures earthward to continue to go about her business, just as serenely and placidly as before. The threat has gone; the stress of the whole affair has now subsided; but it would be well for us to get the inside story of what actually happened in order to better understand how the adrenal glands figured in all of this.

As Miss Kitty spied the dog coming into the yard, her brain immediately interpreted this as a danger signal. As quick a flash, the brain shot nerve impulses down line, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. This triggered a response in the cat known as the flight or fight mechanism. Sympathetic impulses passing quickly down the spinal cord also impinged upon the mid-portion of the adrenal glands, causing them to release adrenaline directly into the bloodstream, which greatly accentuated the cats flight or fight response to danger. This physiological phenomenon, also seen in humans, is a built-in lifesaving mechanism, allowing for a more ready response, accompanied by an increase in strength and speed.

As a result of this automatic and involuntary action, the heart rate is increased, increasing the blood supply to the skeletal muscles. In response, the arteries supplying blood to the extremities dilate to allow increased circulation to these areas. The smaller air passages in the lungs (bronchioles) also dilate to allow an increased flow of air, permitting the blood to become more rapidly supercharged with oxygen.

The metabolism is stimulated and increased amounts of glucose are released, providing energy-rich fuel. The pupils of the eyes also dilate to admit more light, and the coagulability of the blood increases in readiness to impede blood loss should injury arise. Other bodily functions not vital to the preservation of life, such as digestion, are shut down or greatly reduced. It is at such times, when the body is thus reacting to stress, that people find themselves capable of some extraordinary feats of strength and speed.

There is, however, another aspect of this same flight or fight mechanism that can prove counterproductive if allowed to remain operative for long periods of time. The problem is that long after the crisis has passed, some people continue to relive the event from memory and keep the adrenaline and other hormones, in lesser but significant amounts, continuing to trickle into the bloodstream. Though few people are physically threatened, yet with many, the stress hormones are just as readily pumped out when they find themselves confronted with other circumstances which they view as just as hostile and threatening.

For some, the overbearing shop foreman or manager in the work place can create a great deal of emotional stresses. For others, a quarrelsome or abusive spouse who nightly devours them piece by piece may be an ongoing source of stress. Home sweet home is not so sweet and not much of a home to many who suffer the devastating stress of such hostile relationships. In many ways, the short-term, physical threat that can be responded to by direct action may, in the long run, be far less damaging than to emotionally run the marathon day in and day out with problems that just will not let you outrun them, no matter how hard you try. It may be stress caused through relationships at work, home, or school, or in any situation that we face that is emotionally intense but which remains an unresolved difficulty in life. Whatever the cause, it is always there, threatening any moment to overtake you, overpower you, and finally to destroy you!

It is in such situations of ongoing, unresolved stress, where the flight or fight mechanism remains in the on mode. Though it may not necessarily show itself, or be acutely felt, it has the subtle effect of affecting you internally, keeping the system from working as it should. The chronic effect of excessive hormone secretion in response to unresolved stress begins, eventually, to break the body down. Energy decreases, resistance to disease is lowered, and the body becomes vulnerable to sickness and premature death, as Selye noted in his laboratory rats. How important, therefore, that we learn to identify the major stress factors that confront us and, more so, how to deal with them.

“God has endowed us with a certain amount of vital force. He has also formed us with organs suited to maintain the various functions of life, and He designs that these organs shall work together in harmony. If we carefully preserve the life force, and keep the delicate mechanism of the body in order, the result is health; but if the vital force is too rapidly exhausted, the nervous system borrows power for present use from its resources of strength, and when one organ is injured, all are affected. Nature bears much abuse without apparent resistance; she then arouses and makes a determined effort to remove the effects of the ill-treatment she has suffered. Her effort to correct these conditions is often manifest in fever and various other forms of sickness.” Ministry of Healing, 234

If we have lived properly and in accordance with Divine law and in harmony with the physical, mental, and emotional laws that govern our being, we should not prematurely exhaust this priceless endowment of life energy. Unhealthy life practices, however, and such factors as stress can prematurely deplete a person’s measure of this vital commodity.

The body is so marvelously designed and engineered by God that it seeks to function as economically as it can in order to preserve its own supply of vital force. After a person may have literally escaped from a raging bull or some other life threatening episode, the body will soon seek to slow down the machinery again. The excess adrenalin in the bloodstream is dissipated. The pulse rate and blood pressure come down and are brought within their normal ranges of operation. The same happens with all other organs or systems that were affected during the flight or fight response to stress. This act of the body in returning its vital functions to normal and maintaining them within their normal ranges is known as restoring homeostasis.

Stress, unfortunately, affects the body’s homeostasis. The long-term effects of excessive hormone production keep a person and some of his vital, bodily functions flying high. As a consequence, he uses up excessive amounts of vital force. Someone has likened this precious endowment of energy to a special kind of bank account that will allow you to make withdrawals but will not permit you to make deposits. While you have money in the account, you can withdraw as much as you want; but once it is gone, there is no more. So with this life and the precious energy that God has given to us to live this life. Sadly, there are many who have exhausted their supply too early in life because unresolved stress wrote too many checks on the account. It literally robbed them of life.

It is well for us to remember that not all stress is bad. We all need the stimulating challenge of life to prevent us from vegetating. If life was otherwise, there would exist no possibility of developing strength of mind and body and especially development of Christian character. However, it is when the stresses of life exceed our ability to cope with them that, as someone once said, stress becomes distress!

The factors, or stressors, that induce stress may well be different for different people. For example: takeoff and landing for a veteran pilot may be a routine part of life causing only mild stress levels for a few moments. However, should his poor wife for some reason have to take control of the aircraft, it would be sufficient reason to place her under extreme stress. On the other hand, once safely home again, it could be the stressful undoing of her husband to have him prepare a meal for the family—a task which under normal conditions would be routine and low stress for the lady of the house—while she retires to bed with shattered nerves and an aching head.

Several years ago two stress researchers by the names of Holmes and Raye developed a special chart that listed certain stressing life-events that most people experience at one time or another. Each event was given a score. The highest scoring life-events were death of a spouse and divorce. Other events, such as going on vacation, getting married, and changing employment, came lower on the scale. It was noted, however, that if a person’s accumulated score exceeded a certain point, they often came down with a serious illness within the space of two years. While this life-events chart is not infallible, it is a useful tool to show how excessive stress takes its toll. It also enables a person to recognize the importance of taking remedial action to reduce the stress level in his life if he recognizes that he has already accumulated a high score.

Thus far as we have examined this question, we may have looked in a negative fashion at the various stressors that confront us on a daily basis. We must remember, however, that many things that arise to challenge and may cause us stress may not in themselves be negative or unpleasant. The point is, however, all events, even the pleasant ones, draw upon our energy reserves and challenge our coping ability. According to Holmes and Raye, even birthdays notch up a few points on their chart.

In pursuing this aspect of “pleasant stress” a little further, we know it is not uncommon for those who really enjoy their work to push themselves to the extreme. They love what they do, and they do it very well. Promotions and pay raises just get them cranked up even more. Production climbs and soars, and there appears no limit; but given time, in most cases, they eventually reach a plateau. They push harder and longer; but somehow the production, instead of increasing, begins to decline. Though they may have enjoyed every minute, as the old saying goes, you cannot burn your candle at both ends. To be even more correct, you can if you want, but you will burn up your candle much more quickly. “Burnout,” a term that came into use well over a decade ago, applies just as forcefully with people who burned out having a good time as to those who burned out having a bad one. The simple reality is that in the first category, those who finally burn out and crumble under the stress of their job find that their good time ultimately evolved into a bad time. The relentless drive to achieve, the constant pressure of deadlines, enjoyable as it was initially, finally lost its lustre. Energy and enthusiasm ultimately waned and the production curve declined. The honeymoon had turned into a nightmare, and there seemed no way out. It is at such times as these that a person may look beyond and outside of himself for a solution; but in the majority of cases, he seeks escape through drugs and alcohol, or in some cases, even suicide. It is not only what we eat but what eats us that determines the length and quality of our life.

Whatever the causes and the level of stress in a person’s life, it is not God’s wish that he should lose control and finally be consumed by the monsters of his own or someone else’s making. God has a way prepared to bring relief. We will examine this next time.

To be continued…