Monday, October 3, 2011

Stress: Friend and Foe

          When it comes to the topic of how stress affects us, many will readily agree that it can be harmful. Where this agreement ends, however, is on the questions of exactly how harmful it is, what to do about it, and when to address it. Whereas some are convinced that medication is the best remedy for this “emotional malady” after troublesome symptoms develop, others maintain that more natural means, including prevention, are the best ways to address this potentially fatal state of dis-ease.
            Stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Experts define it as a feeling of loss of control or the perception of a threat – real or imagined, to your body or ego, through physical or psychological means. When living creatures feel stress, the fight or flight instinct that serves as a life preserver is triggered. The resulting effects in the body cause a heightening of our body’s defense mechanisms: our senses of sight, hearing and smell are more acute and we experience an increase in strength, all in an attempt to ward off eminent danger.
            Like many animals in the wild, historically, we relied on this reaction to keep us alive. A pack of zebras might be grazing in a field, an animal comes to find its next meal, the zebras run from their attacker, one of them is caught, and the rest go back to grazing, the threat having ended. At one time humans depended primarily on this stress-reaction in the same way. Today we often do, but not exclusively. When faced with a life-or-death situation, sense-altering conditions can occur in the body, causing symptoms such as tunnel vision, selective hearing and changes to the perception and effects of pain. Many law enforcement officers report experiencing a type of tunnel vision when facing someone armed with a weapon, at the prospect of engaging in a shooting. When shot, some report feeling no initial pain in spite of serious injury.  Victims of violent crimes have reported time seeming to slow down during their attacks, causing them to remember minute details that they might otherwise have missed. From time to time the news will report a demonstration of super-human strength when someone is able to lift a heavy object, such as a car, rescuing someone trapped underneath. These are chemical reactions set in motion by stress-triggers when facing life-or-death situations. These reactions to stress can be a good thing according to Dr. Mark Hyman, doctor of functional medicine in his book, The UltraMind Solution, “When considered from an adaptive point of view, when we are in dangerous or stressful situations, we want to remember everything about it. That’s a good thing; it helps us avoid the situation in the future”. Our body is wired to perform in unique and beneficial ways that can protect us, or others, when stress calls us into potentially life-saving action. 
For humans, the need for fight or flight is less a concern in our modern world, yet we still have this self-preservation mechanism that is triggered unnecessarily more often today than in times past, resulting in harm to our bodies. As Dr. Hyman warns, “The problem in our culture is the chronic, unremitting, unrelenting stress and endless stressful inputs to our nervous system, including our nutrient-depleted toxic diet, environmental toxins, electro pollution, and loss of a sense of control and community”. From the time we wake up in the morning and have our first cup of coffee (stimulating our adrenal glands, causing a release of adrenalin and cortisol creating the “buzz” usually attributed to caffeine), followed by a conflict-filled or unfulfilling work day, to congested interstate commutes, we are regularly experiencing stress that is rarely, if ever, adequately addressed. According to many experts, we have a difficult time separating our various stress-responses into the “life-and-death” category and “others”, such as the price of gas, depletion of the ozone layer or an argument with our spouse. During life-and-death stress situations such as an assault or accident, survival is THE most important thing to accomplish, so our body will focus on heightening the performance of key life-preserving functions like those involving the heart, lungs and other muscles, while the non-essential functions that include reproduction, immunity, digestion and tissue repair are slowed down. It appears that the inability to distinguish, within our bodies, between the different categories of stress is what contributes to the current epidemic of stress-related illnesses including heart disease, infertility, and even certain cancers, so prevalent today.
Our bodies respond to stress in a methodical set of steps:  Perhaps something startles you in the middle of the night and you wake with a start, bolting upright in bed.  Your stress response begins in the hypothalamus portion of your brain, which activates your sympathetic nervous system, stimulating your adrenal glands causing the release of adrenaline and cortisol.  It is this chemical cocktail that activates our muscles and heightens our senses of hearing and sight. Our breathing becomes more shallow and our movements less fluid. Because it is important to remember every detail of a life-or-death situation, our hippocampus - the brain’s memory center - is activated (it is believed by some researchers that continual over-activation of this area of the brain contributes to memory-related decline as constant cortisol saturation shrinks the hippocampus), and our body is able to perform in optimal response to the task at hand.
But what happens if we experience this adrenaline “rush” when we are not faced with the prospect of an intruder in the middle of the night? What if this response is triggered from drinking too much coffee and caffeinated soda, a frustrating morning commute or an argument with a spouse, and we are unable to burn off the adrenaline that our body has produced? It can create illness, cautions Dr. John Douillard, Ayurveda and natural medicine expert in his book, The 3-Season Diet: Eat The Way Nature Intended, “The body responds to mental, physical, or emotional stress with the same degenerative chemistry. Cortisol levels rise, disease-producing free radicals are created, the body craves sugar, insulin and cholesterol levels increase, and the body stores fat …If our bodies are convinced that all aspects of our lives are an emergency, and the above reaction becomes a constant part of life, whether while exercising or driving your kids to preschool, then we are in trouble”. The resulting heart disease, obesity, and even nutrient-deficiencies related to unaddressed stressors are often blamed on other, secondary factors, yet these are usually created by the stress itself. Often, unless the root of the cause is treated, one symptom may be addressed with medication only to see another, sometimes more dangerous one appear, much like the way a frustrated child escalates his manner of “communication” when attempting to get his way if ignored. Eventually, there is the expression that becomes the “last straw”. According to Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford University neurobiologist who has studied the effects of stress and how it relates to animal and human hierarchy for several decades, “Our stress response becomes more damaging than the stress itself”. His conclusions, detailed in fascinating account through the documentary, Stress: Portrait of a Killer, by National Geographic mirror the sentiments of John Douillard, above. The very response that is intended to save our life can actually shorten it.
While it is not practical to expect everyone to completely ignore the “others” – those non-life-and-death stressors common in our culture – there are things we can do to minimize their impacts on us. Unfortunately, many people rely on medications as their first option when symptoms begin to appear or stress has reached an unbearable level. The side effects of these medications can be unpleasant and may include depression, impotence and constant ringing in the ears, sometimes compounding the condition that they were intended to treat. Often, these are just treating symptoms rather than getting to the root of the problem, which is primarily the stress itself. Talk-therapy is one common treatment that is often helpful in changing the perception and impact of stressful situations, while arming the sufferer with strategies that may actually help them avoid the stress all together. Dr. Sapolsky emphasizes, “A huge component of stress is lack of control, lack of predictability”. He has found strong similarities between how animals and humans both react to stress on a chemical level. Many researchers agree that no matter what your circumstances, finding an area of your life that you can have some sense of control over is a key component to reducing stress’s impact.  Another effective technique includes something as simple as incorporating deep breathing into your daily routine.  By taking deep breaths that engage the diaphragm, the vagus nerve is activated, causing chemicals to be released into the brain that actually counteract the damaging effects of cortisol on the hypothalamus. A combination of breathing exercises with purposefully calming the mind, through a form of meditation can be extremely effective. Vigorous exercise is also a beneficial non-medical technique.  It helps to reduce the internal damage of stress by allowing the body to respond, through active movement, to its natural “next step” urge of burning off, or putting to good use, the muscle-activating chemicals that are produced to spur us into action while increasing the production of serotonin, the feel-good chemical.
Stress does not have to dictate the length and quality of our lives. The accompanying illnesses that include heart disease, high cholesterol, weight-gain and digestive complications while potentially life-threatening, are often merely symptoms of this physical and psychological threat.  Rather than waiting until the symptom-related illnesses strike, it is important to take a proactive stance in the battle for our health. Through arming ourselves with the knowledge of how stress operates in our bodies, and becoming equipped with tools to adequately address it, we will not have to succumb to a poor-quality life existing at the mercy of this double-edged sword. 

Information not intended to replace that of your doctor.  See your doctor immediately if you are experiencing illness or life-threatening symptoms.  If you're interested in one-on-one help with creating a strategy for managing your stress, contact me here today!

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