Everyone seems obsessed with stress. But how do we actually define stress?
Obvious stress triggers include: deadlines at work, screaming kids, financial woes, and similar modern life emergencies.
But what is stress…..really?
I define stress as a emotional, physical and hormonal response to a REAL or PERCEIVED threat. Essentially stress is the complete human response we often call the “FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE.”
Do you have: Neck pain, back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, fatigue, insomnia, low libido, anxiety, depression or panic attacks, chronic joint pains, and even heart disease? Protracted stress plays a role in the development of all these vitality, joy stealing scenarios.
Read on to understand this important topic.
Beneficial Stress: Fight or Flight Response
10,000 BC. You and your mate sit eating berries and squirrel in a small cave, calm, and enjoying your brief existence as primordial man. A low growl near your hovel entrance signals an unwelcome guest. The bear that previously inhabited your cave has returned to claim his time-share and discovers you and your mate have crashed his pad.
Suddenly you feel a thump in your chest and your heart pounds violently as your pulse rate leaps to 150 beats / minute instantly. Your vision focuses sharply and time slows. You suddenly notice “Spider-man-like” senses as your sense of smell, hearing, and touch rise to hyper-acute levels–you can actually smell the bear’s musk and visually track a single drop of drool falling from his fangs, ticking down onto the cave floor.
You wet yourself as his violent roar echos through the cave. You feel your body in a cold sweat, vision now narrow as you adeptly reach for your makeshift spear. The bear rising to his hind feet eclipses the cave entrance and your brain-stem quickly surmises this situation has no escape. Fight or flight? Given the lack of options you’re like a cat thrown into a bathtub….it’s on.
Without thought, lunging forward, you’re amazed at the quickness and strength you now possess in your supercharged, fear jacked state. The spear plunges powerfully into the beast. You don’t even feel the slash from his claws lacerating your arm as you ram home the spear. The bear realizing his overestimation of the cave squatters, turns and runs….as his fight or flight instincts suggest….
While changing your loin cloth, you notice a giddiness as you and your mate share incredulous looks as if #$&@ ! Can you believe that just happened???
Physically, you feel spent. You’re drenched in sweat (urine) and you just now notice the pain in your arm.
You are alive….
Physiology of Stress:
So the above scenario has played out for thousands of years. More often successful. Of important note, the episode was brief. The attack lasted only seconds, passed and allowed our ancestors to return to a mostly peaceful, calm existence.
Let me explain what happened during his close encounter.
Prior to the bear arriving, our caveman was in a relaxed state. His body happily focused on food, shelter, and procreation. His /Her hormone production naturally tended towards hormones that promote reproduction, storage, and repair. (DHEA, Testosterone, Estrogen, Progesterone, Growth Hormone, etc.)
As the bear entered the cave, a shift occurred. The image of the bear triggered a response from the most primitive portions of his/her brain. The image indicated DANGER–YOUR IN TROUBLE. This electrical switch, triggered a hormonal and electrical response that led the “stress organs” of our body, called adrenal Glands, to suddenly dump large amounts of hormones like adrenaline, noreadrenaline, and cortisol into your bloodstream. These hormones created the palpable thump and race of the heart.
Physiologically this creates a cascade of events. First, the sudden rush of blood fills muscles and prepares them for fight or flight. Reflexes become cat-like as these hormones trigger heightened electrical signaling throughout our caveman’s body. For the same reason vision sharpens, narrows, and the remaining senses go “spidey.” Additionally, our caveman’s liver responds to the Cortisol hormone telling the liver to dump large amounts of glucose into the blood stream thereby preparing the muscles with back up fuel….in case this gets ugly.
Simultaneously, Cortisol and other cascading stress hormones trigger subtle, yet powerful changes in our caveman’s immune system. His white blood cells and immune system immediately prepared for the possibility of injury and infection…a good thing since he sustained a wound to his arm. Without this subtle response our ancestor would have died an agonizing death from sepsis days later despite his heroic…. lucky… battle for survival.
In over simplified terms, STRESS IS AWESOME.
NOT SO FAST
Pitfalls of Chronic Stress:
In modern life we experience a bit more than our caveman brethren. Though we possess the same remarkable, life-saving, “fight or flight” hormonal cascades described above, we also have considerable more chronic exposure to events and life circumstances that trigger this response.
Think of what chronic stresses many face today…..work, school, deadlines, commitments, financial struggles, relationship woes, etc. We also have longer work hours which lead to less sleep (That’s right poor or limited sleep triggers a fight or flight response). We also eat processed foods and diets heavily laden with sugar. We consume alcohol and a host of medications, stimulants and additives. Many chemicals like caffeine and nicotine mimic trigger some of the same responses that our pre-historic bear triggered for our caveman.
Our minds are bombarded with enormous quantities of media stimuli from television, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, and others. Don’t think this really causes stress? Remember the visceral sensation you had when you watched the Twin Towers fall on 911. I remember where I was, what I was doing, and exactly who was there. Only an acute stress hormone cascade can sharpen the memory of such an event like it happened yesterday! (AND I WATCHED ON TV FROM TEXAS.)
So what? Stress is a good thing right? Saved the caveman….jacked his immune system into high gear, gave him super-human reflexes and strength right? All true.
Research suggests however when a stress response goes on greater than a day or so, bad things begin to occur.
For instance, as the Cortisol level rises, remember the liver responds to this stimuli by releasing sugar into the blood stream. For the caveman, this awesome event allowed plenty of energy and muscle power to plunge his spear into his foe. However, when a modern man, angered by his boss, day to day….for 20 years… the same hormone release causes something different. Modern man doesn’t use his muscles to slay his enemy….instead he sits. The sugar has to go somewhere and so insulin begins to rise. Insulin rises and he notices weight gain and fat around his mid-section.
Worse yet, the adrenaline that helped raise blood pressure in our caveman example, enabling powerful and explosive muscles, leads to hypertension, muscle tension, and insomnia with chronic exposure.
For our stressed modern man, years go by, weight goes up, arteries clog and he has his first heart attack. Though heart disease is clearly multi-factoral, nearly all experts agree, stress plays a huge role in the development of coronary artery disease, the number one killer of modern man…in industrial countries.
The last example of course represents a common path many follow. Others experience tension, muscle aches, back pain, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, tension headaches, Irritable bowel syndrome, and more.
Additionally, remember how acute stress boosts your immunity? Chronic stress does the opposite. So chronically speaking our immune systems become weaker. Weaker immunity makes us less fertile, prone to infection, and cancer as years pass.
And now the best part. Chronic stress leads to a shift in hormones. When the caveman got attacked, he wasn’t thinking about procreating. Sex was the farthest thing from his mind as the bear wondered into his cave. His body made a quick, momentary shift to increase his chance of survival. But, chronic stress shifts production of hormones meant for reproduction–downwards.
The STAR TREK analogy would read, “Captain….we’re at maximal warp speed….I’m given her all she’s got! I’m going to have to shut down the shields…..”
Chronic stress decreases the production of NON-essential hormones: Testosterone, Estrogen, Progesterone, DHEA, and Aldosterone.
Translation: Chronic stress leads to LOW-T, low libido, fatigue, depression, anxiety, irregular menses, early menopause, infertility, sugar and salt cravings, etc.
Ok, now we’re all sufficiently stressed about stress! If you’re type A you can probably already detect a bit of chest pain or a slight hint of anxiety creeping in…..
Instead of signing off now, allowing you to sit-back and “embrace the horror,” I took the liberty of scouring the Google universe to find all the best ways to decrease stress. The list isn’t exhaustive but a list of things that clearly make a difference based on my use recommending them to patients.
I recommend you read through this list, find something that works and use it….daily. Oh, and by the way, for those individuals that lie to themselves and say, “I handle stress just fine.” It doesn’t end so well for you….nobody “handles stress.” It causes the same hormonal cascade as everyone else.
Utilizing this list you can abate some of the process.