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Undoing the Stress Response

April 10th, 2009

by Caterina Spinaris Tudor, Ph.D.

Imagine being ambushed by a mountain lion while hiking through the Colorado Rockies. As soon as the big cat knocks you to the ground, you automatically go into fighting mode. Your heart rate and blood pressure shoot up, sending extra blood to your limbs so you can have the strength to fight. Glycogen in your liver and muscles becomes converted to glucose to give you extra energy. Digestion stops. Cholesterol is released in your bloodstream to be an additional source of energy. Blood clotting factors kick into action, so you won’t bleed to death. Endorphins flood your brain to enable you to ignore the pain of bites and broken bones, so you can continue to fight. The adrenaline that floods your system increases your aggression, helping you maintain your fierce determination to survive. This simplified description of physiological changes that occur during a life-threatening attack constitutes “the stress response.”

The good news is that the stress response can help keep you alive in the case of a physical attack. The bad news is that any perceived threat, biological or psychological, real or imagined—even a simple insult—can throw your body into the stress response. Becoming irate at a colleague or your supervisor sets off the same biochemical changes in your body as being attacked by a mountain lion.

Our bodies can handle infrequent, isolated bursts of “going from 0 to 100 in 5 seconds.” After the threat is over, they bounce back, reverting to normal levels of functioning. Problems start to occur when the body is subjected to a prolonged and/or frequent stress response. When that happens, at first people start complaining about symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, sleep disturbances and stomach upsets. They may also begin to exhibit signs of irritability, hostility, anxiety, pessimism, and “the blues.” As conditions that trigger the stress response persist, organs and tissues begin to be seriously affected. Eventually disease sets in, such as high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, heart rate irregularities, heart attacks, strokes, immune system disturbances, peptic ulcers, and diabetes. That is why stress is a reality that must be confronted. Stress is not just about staff becoming demoralized or in a bad mood. Inescapable, prolonged stress translates into poor performance, high rates of sick leave, rising medical costs, early retirements due to disability, and even death.

Corrections environments are notorious for being rife with stressors, such as inmate overcrowding, staff shortages, mandatory overtime, shift changes, failing equipment and aging buildings, violence, death, communicable diseases, heat, noise, and conflict among staff.

Working in a correctional facility stimulates the stress response to various degrees on an ongoing basis, due to the ever-present potential of danger. The very nature of the job requires a level of heightened vigilance and monitoring of the environment which are mediated by the stress response. In other words, while working in a prison or a jail, you have to remain stressed at least a little—on the lookout, ready to note emergencies and to respond. Corrections staff is expected to keep offenders under control, to prevent outbreaks of violence and to avoid being attacked. Staff may also engage in verbal and even physical confrontations with offenders. Many correctional workers have shared with me that they feel their adrenaline surge the moment they report to work. And, of course, this state of hypervigilance does not end with their shift, as the stress response does not come with an on-and-off switch. It follows them home.

As time goes on, and as the toll of the chronic stress response mounts, staff may become prone to acting aggressively. Since they operate in a culture where the basic assumption is that only the strong survive, corrections staff try hard to not be perceived as weak. In their interactions with others they may tend to be forceful and intimidating, frequently expressing anger and hostility. They may also overreact, due to their fear of being taken advantage of or humiliated. On the whole, they may strive to dominate their environment and eliminate threats by overpowering others. These behaviors not only exacerbate the wear-and-tear of the staff’s physical bodies, they also create potential liabilities for their department, and are stressors for the other staff.

To counter the impact of the stress response, staff needs to learn to reduce their physiological arousal and instead, induce states of relaxation and well-being.

To achieve this, the first step is for staff to figure out ways for down time when they leave work, to give their bodies a chance to calm down by gradually turning off the stress response. Time outdoors, walking or running, and taking in the beauty of nature, cleanses the soul. Physical exercise helps metabolize adrenaline and other stress hormones faster. Deep, slow breathing helps induce a peaceful state of mind. Laughter counters the stress response and helps release “good” chemicals in the body as well as sending more oxygen to the brain. Engaging in fun-filled hobbies and playing with children and animals can also be wonderful counters to the stress response.

Corrections staff must also learn to guard their sleep time. Eight hours of restful sleep are a necessity for most of us to recover from the day’s demands. This oftentimes becomes an elusive ideal for correctional workers due to rotating shift work, overtime, and emergencies. Healthy nutrition that does not tax our pancreas with high-sugar foods or our cardiovascular system with high-cholesterol items is also vital. Avoidance of stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine keeps us from driving our bodies harder.

Engaging in thoughts of thanksgiving, appreciation, gratitude, caring and love helps us feel good, normalizes heart rhythms, and boosts immune system and brain function. To try this, close your eyes and think of persons for whom you feel appreciation, gratitude or love. After doing this for a couple of minutes, notice how your body feels and what your emotions are like as a result. Hand-holding and hugs also reduce stress-related chemicals. Moral of the story: Cultivate loving and supportive relationships. They will preserve your health! Pursue positive relationships where appreciation and caring are expressed, both at work and at home. The research is clear that loving thoughts and actions are major health boosters.

And last, but by no means least, the management of angry reactions spares people the flare-up of the stress response.

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About the author: Caterina Spinaris Tudor, Ph.D., is the founding Director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO) and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. The mission of DWCO (www.desertwaters.com) is to increase the occupational, personal and family well-being of staff of all disciplines within the corrections profession.

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