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We Have Met the Enemy - Part 2
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 05/06/2019

Stress Continued from the March 2019 issue of the Correctional Oasis.

In the first part of this article, in the March 2019 issue of the Correctional Oasis, I noted that 60-80% of visits to primary care physicians are estimated to include a stress-related component [1]. That is, 60-80% of illnesses may be due to what we loosely call “stress.”

Why is stress so detrimental to health?

To answer this question, even very briefly, we have to look at what the stress response is and what it involves.

In essence, the stress response involves mobilizing the body’s resources to fend off a threat, anything that threatens the organism’s survival or that threatens to throw it off balance in its performing its routine operations required for living.

We’re familiar with the term “fight or flight” which is triggered by part of our autonomic nervous system. We’re less familiar with another term—“rest and digest,” which is run by another part of our autonomic nervous system. This refers to functions that the body runs quietly in the background, humming away, to keep us alive, such as breathing, the beating of our heart and blood circulation, digestion, and temperature control.

“Fight or flight” reactions derail “rest and digest” functions. They do so by engaging the body’s fight or flight mode in its attempt to cope with danger. That of course can be a life saver when there is a real physical threat to our survival.

The stress response impacts a large number of body organs and functions through a complex array of biochemical reactions. As a result, organs such as the brain, the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, the immune system, the liver, and the pancreas are affected either directly or indirectly.

In fact, it is difficult to select a body organ or function that is not affected by the cascade of biochemical reactions that we call the stress response. And the outcome is the disruption of rest and digest function and/or the increase of fight or flight reactions. Without getting into details regarding physiological changes, some examples of the stress response outcomes are interrupted digestion, increased heart rate and blood pressure, increased blood circulation to large muscles (arms and legs), released cholesterol in the blood stream, slight thickening of the blood, released glucose (sugar) from the liver into the blood stream, increased inflammation, or suppression of immune system functions.

These aspects of the stress response are designed to deal with external dangers that can result in physical injuries, or internal threats, like viral or bacterial infections.

However, social (psychological or emotional) threats elicit the very same stress response that physical threats do. It is as if our brains have only a hammer as a tool to deal with danger, and so, to our brains, every threat—whether physical or social—is a nail.

That is, confrontations with coworkers or supervisors will produce the same set of body changes as would a confrontation with a wooly mammoth. Strong emotions, such as anger, anxiety or grief, elicit the stress response in the body just like an encounter with a dinosaur would. And, furthermore, it does not matter to the brain if an event has really happened or not. An imagined or anticipated dreaded occurrence can result in the same flood of stress chemicals as an actual event. Fear of being found guilty during an investigation, fear of retaliation due to filing a grievance, or resentment felt when a perceived injustice is remembered—all lead to the same “fight or flight” stress response in the body. We can be vacationing in a most relaxing part of the world, and yet ruin our mood just by remembering or thinking about events that trigger anger, anxiety, fear, sadness or resentment in us.

So what do you think happens to body tissues and organs if the stress response gets triggered over and over, perhaps several times a day, for periods of months or years? The body can handle an encounter with a sable-toothed tiger or an offender with a shank perhaps once every couple of years or so. As long as one survives the attack, the body will likely bounce back. But being subjected to the stress response several times daily, over and over, is another story.

What would happen to an engine if it was made to run for days at a time at the highest end of RPMs that is was designed for, or when the engine was made to run outside the parameters for which it was designed?

Most of us would say that the engine would end up with metal fatigue, with parts getting ground down or breaking off due to the friction, with the engine overheating, running out of oil, and eventually burning up.

This is, figuratively, what can happen to the body when the stress response takes place over and over. That is how diseases can start. The body may bounce back from stress-related chemicals that are secreted in it occasionally. When exposure to these chemicals is repeated often and becomes the norm, that’s when the damage is likely to start happening, accumulating over time as the exposure continues unabated.

Moreover, through repeated use, nerve pathways in the brain responsible for overlearned/frequent behaviors become automated. (Think of the amount of conscious effort it took for you to drive when you were first acquiring driving skills compared to now that you’ve been driving for many years.) Strong and well-established brain circuits run as computer programs that get executed automatically once started. It’s as if each time a certain reaction happens, the furrow in the ground gets deeper, and it is easier to fall in it and take that route when that stimulus is encountered again in the future.

In fact, we now know that each time that a behavior is practiced, the brain strengthens the connection between neurons (a type of brain cell) that fire during that behavior—neurons that are associated with a stimulus A and a following response B, or between two stimuli that happen at the same time. As Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb once said, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (That is an aspect of what is called “neuroplasticity” of the brain—the fact that the brain continually changes, building connections between nerve cells based on experience and practice.)

Think of Pavlov’s dogs that salivated when the bell was rung, the bell that repeatedly had rung when food was presented to them before. As a result, when the neurons related to stimulus A fire, they activate the neurons related to response B, due to their connection. And that happens involuntarily, automatically.

In corrections, staff acquire many such conditioned stimulus and response circuits that trigger the stress response—to objects, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, memories, and anticipatory fears. And at the time they may not be aware that they are being triggered by a particular object or thought, that this particular object or thought may be the source of their suddenly darkened mood or distress. For example, just looking at their duty belt at home, or, on their weekend, just thinking that they have to go back to work in 24 hours, can trigger the biochemical cascade of the stress response.

Another challenge related to the stress response is that stimuli that trigger it tend to generalize to other, similar stimuli, or to unrelated stimuli that happened to co-occur at the time. This, again, ends up triggering fight or flight reactions increasingly more easily—resulting in a chronically tense, anxious or depressed mood or mindset.

And this results in more stress-related chemicals being released in the brain and in the rest of the body, and more negative effects, in a vicious looping cycle. For example, if I tend to be impatient, prone to get angry when I am kept waiting, I may get agitated and irritable (that is, experience the stress response) just at the thought that people at a future meeting might be late. The event has not even happened, and it may never happen, but I have tied myself in knots. And then I snap at something else that happens to occur at the same time, and I get myself wound up even more tightly, making myself even more miserable, and perhaps eventually aggravating symptoms of stress-related dysfunction or even disease.

So you can imagine what corrections staff are facing as “part of the job.” Being overly vigilant, continually ON, on high alert, by definition means that the “fight or flight” mode is in the ascendancy chronically, and “rest and digest” is relegated to an endangered species status. Add to the mix friction among staff, work and home life imbalances, financial concerns, and chronic partial sleep deprivation due to working mandatory overtime on a regular basis, and it becomes rather obvious why perpetually stressed corrections employees may be prone to physical and psychological health conditions.

And that is why taking measures to embrace a lifestyle that decreases “fight or flight” reactions while increasing time spent in the “rest and digest” mode can be a life saver.

To be concluded in the next issue of the Correctional Oasis.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4286362/

This article as been reprinted with permission from the March 2019 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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