While stress is a part of everyday existence and can normally be handled by healthy individuals with adequate coping skills, extreme stress is the result of difficult life experiences such as accident, abuse, disaster, trauma, war and other forms of violence, betrayal, exploitation and loss. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an example of extreme stress. Extreme stress causes numerous cumulative mental and physical disruptions in the body’s ability to handle even minor upsets and can result in severe medical and psychological consequences.
Extreme stress causes various reactions in the human body. First, these difficult life experiences cause changes in the body’s central nervous system. There’s a rush of adrenalin, the so-called “fight or flight” response, or extreme and total exhaustion. The body either can’t keep up (but keeps trying) or it simply shuts down. The brain, as a consequence, signals a warning sign. It’s on a constant state of red alert or alarm and its systems become overloaded trying to deal with this. As a result, the brain’s thought and decision-making processes, among other things, gradually shut down. The individual suffering from extreme stress feels overwhelmed, defeated, confused and incapable of making the right choices. Bodily signals that extreme stress is beginning to wreak havoc include gasping for breath or feeling of being smothered or overreacting or freezing to a trigger; terror, panic, aggression, rage and doomed or hopeless feeling.
Often, individuals engage in maladaptive coping behaviors that only further aggravate a condition such as extreme stress. These behaviors include fighting, inflicting self-harm or doing harm to others, engaging in risky behaviors (such as drug or alcohol use), isolation, sleeping and thoughts of or attempted suicide. Extreme stress produces feelings of abandonment, defeat, emptiness, pain, pressure, rage and terror. Individuals may try to cope with extreme stress by lying to others, destroying property, acting in an aggressive or defiant manner, procrastination and avoidance of responsibilities. Violence toward self or others often accompanies extreme stress, as well as isolation via the computer or sleeping excessively. Extreme stress has external and internal triggers. These differ in type and intensity for each individual. What bothers one person may be insignificant to another. External triggers include persons, places or situations, changes in routine, sights, sounds and smells, time or date and certain activities. Internal triggers can include emotions, thoughts, bodily sensations and sickness or injury.
Stress management experts recommend the following tips for managing extreme stress: refining your focus to concentrate on what’s really important; understanding the triggers that precede extreme stress, or that aggravate already-existing stress levels; exercising discipline to engage in only one emotion at a time; and prioritising thoughts to exercise control and better manage extreme stress. Good nutrition, sleep and exercise are also important in helping the mind and body heal from the effects of extreme stress. Therapy can also help, in the form of individual and/or group counseling sessions, 12-step groups, meditation, hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and other healing techniques.