How to Build Your Resistance to Stress

By Gail Sanders Durgin, Ph.D. and Dr. Robert Grove, Ph.D.

Have you ever taken a stress test? You know—the checklist of stress events that are in your life or questions about how you respond to stress. What do these tests really tell you? They tell you how you respond to stress in comparison to other people. The results can be reassuring or scary, depending on how you answered the questions. But do these surveys really help you to mange your stress?

Loraine is a busy mom with two kids, 13 and 11 years old. Her 13 year old daughter Sophie is involved in dance and music lessons, and her 11 year of son James participates in the sport of the season and guitar lessons. Loraine works part-time in a public relations firm as well as volunteers at the children’s schools and leads her daughter’s scout troop. Since her husband travels frequently for his work, Loraine is often the only adult at home to manage all the tasks needed to run the home and family.

Loraine often has trouble sleeping and frequently suffers from headaches. She has a rarely used gym membership, and actually gets more exercise from mowing the yard and raking up leaves in the fall. She is becoming more forgetful, and often feels she in no longer in control of the household work. Her irritability has increased and she has more trouble staying organized at work.

Loraine considers herself to be stressed but finds it difficult to release her stress. She often picks up magazines on the checkout counter of the supermarket that advertise “10 ways to reduce stress” or “rate your stress.” She tries the suggestions in the articles. The methods for reducing stress usually include eating well, reducing unnecessary tasks, meditation, going for therapy, time management, deep breathing, etc. All of these strategies do contribute to assisting Loraine in managing her stress, but something is still missing.

Dr. Hans Seyle, the father of stress research, found the when people are stressed, they first experience an alarm reaction which prepares the body to adapt to the demands of the stress they have encountered. As the stress is resolved or the situation is considered not to be a threat, the person will then return to a normal or neutral state. If the stressful situation continues, the person will continue to react to the stress and will try to find a way to adapt to the ongoing demands of the stress. When this state continues for too long, the body cannot maintain this on-alert status and uses up its available resources. Psychological, physical, and behavioral changes begin to occur that include poor memory, inability to concentrate, rapid, shallow breathing, acid stomach, irritability, disorganization and an atmosphere of not being in control.

If the body does not cope with the stressor more constructively at this point, exhaustion will take over as all of the body’s resources are depleted and the body’s systems start to break down. Now the results of unrelenting stress can include depression, forgetfulness, hypertension, migraine and tension headaches, substance abuse, inability to make decisions and inability to deal with work pressure plus many more issues.

All of the methods described in the magazine articles do help to reduce stress but which of these methods track the system that is most vulnerable in your body. Deep breathing is a method frequently described as reducing stress and it can assist very well if the breathing is done properly. If not done properly, poor breathing can actually increase the number and duration of stress symptoms.

One the best ways to build your stress resistance is to learn how your body responds to different types of stressors and more importantly how your body recovers from stress after an event occurs. During the psycho-physiological profile, the client is asked to relax and enjoy a pleasant experience. Then the participant is exposed to several stressors for a short period of time and both the response to the stressor and how the participant recovers from the stressor is measured. In the stress profile, the participant has several body systems monitored by instruments that show their effectiveness. The body’s breathing rate, heart rate variability, skin tension, skin temperature and muscle tension are all measured together. This builds a profile of how the body responds to stress and how it recovers from the stressor. Are you a fast or slow responder to a stressor? Do you hold your stress in your body, in your thoughts, or both?

People learn different stress coping strategies. Fast Shifters are flexible and can adjust to new situations easily and recover from stress quickly. Another type, Physiological Lingerers, have trouble letting go and moving on after a stressful event. They hold onto the effects of one event and then let other events build up more challenge to their physiological systems. Fixed Responders are people who respond to all stressful events, no matter how serious or important, with the same amount of upheaval or upset and have the same recovery curve to any event.

Loraine came to Neurofeedback Associates for a complete Stress Profile. The results of her evaluation showed that she was slow to recover after stressors and unable to return to a relaxed state in a reasonable amount of time. Loraine was first taught Heart Rate Variability training and correct breathing to activate her relaxation response when she realized that she was becoming stressed. She also learned other methods to relax and used a skin temperature monitor at night before bed to monitor her progress. She then purchased a small portable heart rate variability monitor that she could carry in her purse to use at any time that she felt her stress levels beginning to get out of control. Her headaches almost disappeared over a few weeks and her sleep improved. She children noticed her decreased irritability and forgetfulness. At the office, she reorganized her work flow and was able to meet her deadlines without anxiety. Loraine had learned many important lessons to keep her relationships and her health optimistic to improve the quality of her life.

Dr. Gail Sanders Durgin has provided neurofeedback and biofeedback services in Greensboro, NC since 2000. Dr. Robert Grove is a medical psychophysiologist who has provided services for many years as well as writing computer programs for biofeedback equipment.


As published in Natural Triad, December 2008


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