Stress is something that everyone agrees attributes to poor health but people rarely do
something about. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard clients say that they attribute their
symptoms to how stressed they have been lately or that they only get a symptom when they are
stressed. When I ask them what they are doing to cope with their stress they usually don’t have an
answer. Of course, there are many things that people do that they say are stress relieving, like hobbies, social activities, and exercise but if we take a moment and understand what stress is and how it affects our body we can take even better steps to managing stress so that it doesn’t contribute to poor health.
Stress, in the way that we generally think about it, is any external stimulus that causes our
bodies to go into a ‘fight or flight” state. You see, our bodies have two nervous system states that need to be kept balanced. They are called sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” system and is generally reserved for when we are confronted with a life-threatening stimulus and we need to either fight for our lives or run for our lives. The parasympathetic nervous system gets the tagline “rest and digest” because this system is in use when we are in a calm state where our body can focus on sleeping and digesting. Balance between these two systems is key for attaining health.
We should flow back and forth between these two states throughout the day depending on
what we encounter. Unfortunately, the nervous systems of humans in modern society tend to be a little imbalanced. To understand why this system is off in humans it is useful to look at this system in wild animals. Dr. Robert Sapolsky out of Stanford University has spent lots of time studying wild animals. One thing that he noticed when studying zebras is that when they are grazing on the savannah they have normal cortisol (the hormone secreted in response to stress) levels. Whenever the zebras were exposed to a stress (like being chased by a predator) their cortisol shot up like it was supposed to. The interesting thing that he observed was that if the zebra got away it’s cortisol levels dropped pretty quickly and the zebra was back to grazing, almost like nothing ever happened.
This is vastly different than what is observed in humans living in modern society. Due to our
advanced cognitive abilities when we get away from a threat we are relieved, but we would most likely relive that experience in our heads for the rest of the day and possibly live in fear of it happening again every day for the rest of our lives. We are a species that can merely think our way into a stress response. The kicker is that many of the threats that we have this reaction to are not even life threatening. We tend to have physiologically life-threatening responses to non-life-threatening stimuli. Our physiology is not set up for prolonged elevated cortisol running around in our system and when it stays elevated many stress related symptoms start to develop. In the words of Dr. Sapolsky in his book Behave, “It is a rare human who sickens because they can’t activate the stress response when it is needed. Instead, we get sick from activating the stress response too often, too long, and for purely psychological reasons”.
But what kind of symptoms can we see from this kind of imbalance in our physiology? Well let’s
look at what happens physiologically when we have a stress response. When we are faced with a threat our body prepares itself to handle that threat. Since humans spent years out in the wild this preparation looks much like it does for wild animals. This would mean that blood is pumped to the muscles and all our senses are heightened. Our body is giving us every chance we it can to either fight off or flee that stress, even if it is only a perceived threat. This also means that attention is taken from all the places in our body that would be utilized in the rest and digest state. Think about it, if our body is focused on removing a threat it is not thinking about digesting, reproducing, sleeping, or detoxifying. These are all things that are done while in the rest and digest state. So, it is no surprise that someone who is unnaturally and chronically in a stress response state too often will have symptoms like digestive issues, insomnia, sexual dysfunction or fertility issues, and issues with detoxification. Stress can even play a central role in causing heart attacks, which I discussed in my blog about heart health.
These issues happen when we lose the ability to go back and forth between the two states and
get stuck in “fight or flight” mode. So, to manage stress it is very useful to do things that help force your body into the rest and digest state. This can be things like meditation, yoga, fasting, breathing deeply, having meaningful positive social relationships, massage, singing, and tai chi. Also, it can be very useful to change your perception of some stresses. While not getting a promotion, not passing a test, or getting stuck in traffic are frustrating and disappointing they are not life-threatening and we should try not to have full blown life-threatening physiologic responses to these things. Just like we can think our way into a stress state we can also change our perception of stress and think our way out of it. Paying attention to which state your nervous system is in and taking steps to reach a proper balance can be huge for preventing stress related symptoms and diseases.