Stress is Bad, M'Kay. But Why?
(August 8, 2017)
Stress is Bad. That seems to be something that all people accept, which is rare in this day and age. Stress FEELS bad, so we don’t have any trouble believing that it IS bad. But WHY is it bad?
A brief note. Today’s newsletter is derived from an oral presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago to my long-suffering business networking group. Since you guys have, so to speak, lived through the dropped magic markers and curling poster board once already, you need not feel obligated to do so again.
Stress is bad because, in a few words, it damages and prematurely ages your body by making continual and extreme demands upon it. These demands were never meant to be ongoing. Stress is meant to elicit TEMPORARY responses from your body that last only long enough to get you out of a difficult situation. Then you are supposed to go back to an edenic life of wandering a beautiful world, eating delicious fruits and generally having a nice time. If and when this doesn't happen, problems result.
You need to know a little bit of boring stuff first. It's like this -- you don’t really have a single nervous system. You have two. They are functionally distinct and even, to a great degree, anatomically separate. One (the sympathetic nervous system, in charge of “fight or flight”) revs you up, the other one (the parasympathetic system) quiets you down (with a state that can be referred to – and frequently is – as “rest and digest”).
One of these is always dominating. It’s supposed to be the parasympathetic, but that’s not how things work these days. Let me illustrate with an example that arises in my own life all too frequently during the warmer months.
A cute little bunny hops into my yard (probably from the thicket of brush I refer to as “Bunnyland” across the street) to eat on the great variety of green weeds in my yard that look like grass as long as I keep them properly mowed. It is all Rest And Digest for this dear little thing. Until it sees my malignant, carnivorous cat. Then, wham! Its sympathetic nervous system leaps to the fore.
When its sympathetic nervous system is in charge, the bunny is in “fight or flight” mode. Its little brain has perceived a threat and temporarily re-tooled pretty much every organ in its body to deal with this threat with a burst of totally over-the-top activity. That means that blood rushes away from its digestive system to its muscles, which tighten up in preparation for immediate use; its heart rate speeds up and blood pressure increases so more blood is available to those muscles; its blood sugar goes up so there will be more fuel for all of this; and its immune system function plummets so that its abundant resources will be available as well.
This bunny is now perfectly primed to get the hell out of the yard and back to Bunnyland, which is the smart choice. It could technically, of course, attack the cat instead. Fight or flight, you see. Should said bunny make the latter choice, what remains of it after the struggle will be deposited by me into a different thicket of brush that I refer to as the Cornfield, in honor of the famous episode of the Twilight Zone starring Billy Mumy. You want to see stress, I can't think of a better depiction of it than the adults in that episode. (You remember it, of course. No?
That should brighten up your morning.)
Anyway, the smart bunny gets out of the yard and away from the cat, and now that the threat is removed (and this part is crucial) its parasympathetic system goes back to being in charge. Said bunny’s heart rate slows down and its blood sugar and blood pressure go down to normal, the blood returns to its digestive system so it can digest its food, and its immune system comes back up to deal with any injuries it may have sustained. It can now, rest, digest and (if necessary) heal successfully.
That’s how it’s SUPPOSED to work. And it worked that way for people, too, back in the day when the threats we dealt with were as immediate and clear-cut as dangerous animals, food shortages or the necessity to get out of the rain. But it doesn’t work that way any more.
Our threats are now ongoing and someplace where we can’t really get at them. You might not make enough money. Or you might have a great job, but a malevolent boss. The market might go down, or up at just the wrong time. Your kid might be acting a little weird and refusing to tell you what's wrong. Et cetera. Modern life for people is the equivalent to a bunny having its home in the yard of a crazy cat lady. It just never, never stops. You can't ever eat your grass in peace.
When you feel constantly under threat, your blood pressure is high all the time – and it eventually stays there and wreaks all kind of damage on the linings of your blood vessels. Your heart rate never goes down – and eventually your heart starts wearing out. Your blood sugar stays high -- so your pancreas wears out and you wind up with (pre)diabetes. Your muscles are always, always tight, everywhere. That means pain in any area that's even a little bit prone to issues. Insufficient blood flow to your digestive system means ulcers, pain, bloating, acid reflux -- all manner of digestive dysfunction. And your immune system is not up to snuff – so lots of colds and flus, autoimmune disease, chronic inflammation, and even cancer. In other words, pretty much every chronic health problem there is.
THAT is why Stress Is Bad. THAT is how stress eventually kills you. And that’s why you want to do whatever you can to diminish it. Which I plan to remember to talk about next time.
--dr. diane holmes
Copyright © 2017