Why Stress is a Big Deal (April 7, 2015)
You may have noticed that from time to time when I am going on about diet and exercise, I airily toss out that we should “reduce stress” as well. When you hear that, you probably just get kind of glassy-eyed, or maybe nod knowingly and get back to what you were doing. Well, that is my fault. The subject deserves a little more attention than that.
Back when I was in high school in the legendary 1970s, one of my teachers persuaded some of us to volunteer with the mentally retarded and challenged population at the local hospital, an institution I become more firmly convinced that we need more of every time I try to drive on a Nashville freeway. Anyway, something that even we teenagers noticed was how young the patients appeared to be. You’d guess someone to be in their early 20s when in fact they were in their mid 40s. We were told by the staff that this deceptively youthful appearance was due to the fact that they had lived decades with absolutely no stress. They were provided three relatively nutritious meals a day at the same times every day, had a very regular schedule of sufficient activity, and had no external demands placed on them of any kind – no worries about family or money or trying to find a parking space in Green Hills. I have never forgotten that.
Because stress ages you. It ruins your body and eventually it kills you. But it does not do this in some vague undetectable mysterious way. It does so through easily understood physical processes that are as open to change by your behavior as are diet and exercise. And you can make those changes either externally (by changing the stressor) or internally (changing your response to the stressor).
Any kind of demand on your body activates its system of stress response by rousing it to DO SOMETHING. These steps are always the same. When you perceive a demand or a threat, it’s first processed by the part of the brain called the amygdala (remember all this, because there’s a quiz at the end of today’s newsletter). The amygdala then signals the hypothalamus to dump a suitable assortment and quantity of stress hormones into the blood. These hormones simultaneously activate some functions of your body (the ones it thinks you’ll need to deal with the stressor) and suppress others (the ones it considers to be unnecessary for the duration of the emergency). If you were spooked enough, or if the threat continues, even after the incident that provoked the response ends you don’t go quite back to your normal resting state. Instead you remain in a condition that’s more alert than normal. And spending years in this state is what ends up wearing us out.
The stress response, like so much of the rest of our physiology, was developed to cope with an environment that no longer exists. It is meant to deal with demands and stressors that are 1) physical and 2) short-term. It works great for when the river your hunter-gatherer tribe was camping next to floods and you all have to jump up, grab your stuff and move to higher ground. But when the stream your house is next to floods and all your stuff including your grandfather's record collection gets ruined, and the drywall is soaked and starts to mold up, and you have to deal with the insurance company that suddenly never heard of you before – well, you see the difference. Our stressors are now mental and not physical, and they are ongoing and not short-term.
If you think of the world as it used to be, you realize how unsafe life was and how simple it was to cope with those dangers. The deluge of hormones and changes in the body that work so effectively to get you out of the way of a stampeding mastodon (which is also what allows the occasional parent to lift a car off her child) is geared toward remedial physical action. Safety and coping with threats to that safety these days is an entirely different ball game.
When your stresses are more subtle than sabre-tooth tigers and you can’t take effective action to eliminate them, your body remains constantly geared at a high pitch of ready-for-action that never comes, and eventually you get the “diseases of civilization”. Spikes of adrenaline and constant high levels of cortisol will, for example, elevate your blood pressure, damage your blood vessels, and destabilize your blood sugar and promote overeating. The suppression of proper digestion (which occurs so you’ll have plenty of available blood flow for the skeletal muscles) results in ulcers, constipation and no end of other digestive problems. The hyperalertness will promote insomnia and anxiety. And the list goes on.
Since the process from stressor to illness has multiple stages, you can step in and affect it in more than one way as well. That first step – perception of danger or threat processed by the amygdala – is a very good place to intervene. The amygdala also processes emotion, so how you think and feel about things has a direct effect on how much stress you endure. Worrying about things that might happen or that you cannot change really is making you sick. Simple behavior modification can work very well here. You could wear an elastic on your wrist and snap it every time you find yourself worrying unnecessarily. This is the level that practicing the relaxation response and meditation affects successfully.
One of the reasons people remain hyper-alert is the amount and volume of incoming perception. There used to be almost no light after sunset, and there were no noises except natural ones. Now there’s artificial light all night long (a lot of it that electronic blue light that is especially arousing) and the noise is constant. Stimulation keeps you alert – that’s just normal physiology. But it also exhausts you when you never relax and have time to physically and mentally regroup.
Mitigating the effects of stress on your body is another effective strategy. This is why you keep hearing that exercise is good for stress. You're being pushed to take physical action. When you actually perform some of that physical activity that your body is demanding, it lets up on you for a while. Stretching is good, but lifting weights or other resistive exercise is even better for chronically tense muscles. There are helpful supplements as well. I will get into that more another time.
Then there is going after the stressors themselves. This is one I really would like to see more people try to do. You can get so overwhelmed by stress that you feel helpless, and that is in fact almost never the case. Your life is under your control and even very small changes can make a big difference and start you in a different, better direction. If you are feeling overwhelmed, sort out the stressors, prioritize the demands made on you and see which ones are amenable to change.
In the end, what stress (or the lack of it) comes down to is control or the lack of it. How much control you have (or feel like you have) over a situation tends to determine how much it stresses you. Stress and its proper control is every bit as important in health and disease as is diet and exercise, and it is essential to be dealt with the way you deal with everything else. Take control wherever you can, and then take a deep breath and don’t let it get to you.
--dr. diane holmes
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