The impact of stress on our lives

Part one: why stress?

Ron Betts going hard on a powder day.

In this two-part series, writer Ron Betts looks at some of the effects of stress on the body. Part one describes situations that can cause stress. Part two will talk about some strategies to recognize and manage the effects of stress.

In about 1994, I was doing a winter season in Australia; teaching skiing, coaching, and generally enjoying the stereotypical life of a travelling ski pro in the land down under. Our staff accommodation was at the base of the ski area only accessible by oversnow vehicles. Guests stayed in lodging onsite and a rotating staff of doctors traded a week of skiing to ensure the resort had medical coverage.

One evening I heard a knock on the door and was greeted by two young men who said they needed help for their friend had fallen and broken his nose. I put on some boots and followed them up the mountain to find the situation was nowhere near that innocent.

As it turned out, the boys had removed a lift tower pad to toboggan down the mountain. Their path took them straight toward the tower where they had just removed the pad and while two of the three managed to jump clear, their friend was not so lucky.

The next two hours were a blur of frantic activity and I was pulled into the clinic to assist the doctor. At the time I had no formal first aid training but the situation didn’t allow for hesitation; we all did the best we could to give the patient a chance. With the help of an oversnow ambulance the young man pulled through.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident I remember what could be described as a pronounced crash. I recall shaking uncontrollably combined with a powerful outpouring of emotion which lasted for about half an hour. I didn’t have the tools or knowledge to recognize the symptoms or deal with them at the time, so I did what I thought you were supposed to do—I followed the Aussie remedy for tough situations.

I told myself, “No worries, mate.” And I may have self-medicated with a beer or two in an attempt to calm myself. What I didn’t do is find someone to talk to, decompress and debrief the situation and follow up in the days to come to make sure I was okay.

In retrospect, I was likely suffering from shock. The intense activation of my nervous system triggered a major adrenal response and the shaking and emotional release was my body’s way of burning off the adrenaline so my nervous system could attempt to regulate itself.

We’ve all heard that a little stress can be a good thing. It can help with focus, or in times when we need to react quickly. In a well-balanced system, our bodies can experience stress reactions and come back to neutral with relative normalcy.

However, if our environment, lifestyle, underlying physical or emotional illness, or any number of other variables keep the nervous system in a constant state of activation, there are physical and psychological problems that can occur. Our bodies are physiologically designed to deal with the hormones that stress produces; adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are useful in small doses, but constant exposure causes some unwanted side effects. Stress can affect the respiratory system, our immune system, the musculoskeletal system, as well as trigger problems with the gastrointestinal tract.

As we begin to better understand the effects of chronic stress on the body and mind, many employers are now offering ways for staff to manage these symptoms. The obvious occupations that are susceptible are first responders, military personnel and medical personnel, but it’s important to recognize that these aren’t the only jobs that can lead to chronic stress. The factors that lead to imbalance in the nervous system are so prevalent that it’s safe to say almost anyone is at risk at one time or another.

The next installment will explore ways to manage stress and keep your nervous system in a well balanced state.