If you suffer from a stubborn rash, ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, menstrual irregularities, loss of libido, low back pain, anxiety or depression, you may be surprised to learn that chronic stress is often a factor common to each of them.
“Stress kills.” We are frequently told this, but many of us just shrug, believing that stress is an inevitable part of life and there is nothing to be done about it. That’s a shame because there is little doubt among experts that this fatalistic acceptance is probably incompatible with living a long and healthy life.
The stress response is meant to be an emergency measures act and is not a viable lifestyle strategy.
What is stress good for?
Picture this: You are strolling along a woodland trail and a mother grizzly suddenly rears up in front of you roaring a challenge. Instantly the alarm center in your brain triggers a massive hormone release that switches you from an attitude of ‘everything’s-cool-in-my-world’ to ‘ah-oooh-gah-dive-dive-dive’ mode, otherwise known as the alarm stage of the physiological stress response.
Presumably you’ve heard the expression, ‘turn white with fear’? You will probably do that because maintaining your radiant glow is wasted energy in this situation. If you have to run or fight, carrying extra baggage will only slow you down and you may automatically lighten your load by vomiting your breakfast oatmeal and soiling your Wranglers. Neither is this the optimal time for making babies, so your reproductive mechanisms power down.
All of the above happens mainly because blood is pulled away from your skin, gastrointestinal tract and pelvic organs and redirected to your muscles, lungs, heart, liver and brain. These organs are essential to your immediate survival and will be maintained at the expense of ones that are not. To survive this crisis, you need superhuman power and endurance from your muscles to evade or fight that angry bear. You need clarity of thought to determine whether climbing a tree or standing your ground will offer your best chance of survival and you need efficient co-ordination of your muscular responses. To execute your plan, you need your heart, lungs and liver operating in overdrive to provide your brain and muscles with inordinate amounts of oxygen and fuel.
So, why is stress harmful? The alarm stage is all about the production and expenditure of enormous amounts of energy. The potent chemicals released to produce this energy are also capable of causing great damage to our minds, bodies and spirits over the long term. Suppose your ‘momma grizzly bear’ is really your boss who regularly terrorizes you. When she is leaning over your desk with a snarl on her lips, you are programmed to either punch her in the face or sprint for the relative safety of a broom closet but sadly, neither of these are viable options in polite society.
The trouble with your mean boss, unruly offspring, daily traffic jams and looming deadlines is that they activate this primal alarm system many times a day, preparing your body for tremendous physical effort that never follows. The resulting damage is measurable. When the skin is consistently denied blood and oxygen, stubborn rashes and infections can result. Ulcers, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome are frequent sequels of reduced blood flow to the gut lining. When digestive functions cease, the liver starts pouring fat and sugar into the blood to supply working muscles. If you don’t use it, it is stored in fat cells. Do this often enough and obesity can result. Chronic elevations of heart rate and blood pressure may lead to hypertension and all of the above can cause heart disease and Type II diabetes.
How is stress implicated in chronic pain, anxiety and depression? Well, that’s another article. Fascinating stuff but you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out the National Geographic documentary, ‘Stress, Portrait of Killer’ on You Tube. It’s longish so bring snacks.