Pillar 4: Stress

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Stress has been consistently increasing with each passing year. With more and more on our plates, the anxieties of “doing it all” and especially the added pressure from the holidays, it’s incredibly important to recognize when we start to feel overwhelmed. Stress manifests in a number of ways: increased heart rate, headaches, fatigue, anxiety, and worst case scenario, illness. Yes, unmanaged stress ultimately leads to a weakened immune response which will most certainly lead to illness. Life does not provide much opportunity to disconnect from the pressures, reevaluate, and recover. We plow forward into the next endeavor and actually end up piling more stress on top of the current load. So it would make sense that the body, under such conditions, responds by throwing up all defenses and plans to prepare for the worst. Know this, if you do not take time to relax, your body will pick the time for you.

3 Different Types of Stress

In the general sense, there are 3 different types of stress.  All stress can be put into one of these three categories:  chemical stress, emotional stress, and physical stress.  They are all equally important and our bodies were designed to have defenses against them.  However, many times these stressors become chronic and these beneficial responses by our bodies can become negative physiological responses if left on too long.  The other really important thing to understand is that the body responds in exactly the same manner regardless of which type of stress it is under.  This fact becomes crucial to remember when you are trying to reduce the stress in your life. It’s not only about reducing the amount of emotional stress, but also the physical and chemical loads that your body is enduring. 

Chemical stress

Chemical stress occurs simply when your body is exposed to unnatural chemicals.  This happens daily and often for most people.  In fact, by the time most people are ready for work or school in the morning they have been exposed to dozens of chemicals.  They can be found in foods, shampoos, soaps, laundry detergent, fabric softeners, toothpaste, makeup, etc.  Now, the body is adapt at handling these individual chemicals, but the problem has become that chemicals are all around us.  This can lead the body to become overwhelmed and it can hinder the body’s ability to function properly and efficiently. The leading causes of chemical stress would be consuming excessive alcohol, smoking, environmental toxins, and/or toxic chemicals that are used on a daily basis for hygiene and/or household chores.

Emotional stress

This category includes all of the pressures we experience on a daily basis. For example, being stuck in traffic and running late for work, looming impending deadlines, financial difficulties and the holiday list that must be completed. Again, emotional stress creates the same physiological response as a chemical stress does.  There are different types of emotional stress which will be discussed later, but this category is what most people relate to when they think about stress.

Physical stress

This category is simply defined as any stress that is placed on the frame of the human body.  This could be from a traumatic injury and simply from overuse.  Injuries are the most common version of physical stress, but you must also remember that exercise is also a physical stressors.  While many of the results of exercise are beneficial, exercise in of itself places a stress on the body in which the same physiologic response occurs.

  

Perceived Stress vs Actual Stress

In the world of emotional stress we must discuss a couple of different versions of emotional stress.  If you are nervous about what could happen, if you have convinced yourself a terrible outcome will most certainly occur, perceived stress is taking over. Overall, perceived stress is using the power of visualization in a negative aspect. Perceived stress induces a feeling of lack of control in a situation. Our perception of unpredictability and the impending feeling of a negative outcome actually creates a stress response. Perceived stress is ultimately the story we tell ourselves!  So, what if we chose to tell ourselves a different story, not one of lack and fear but of abundance and excitement. Humans are exceptionally adaptable, our brains have the ability to create new network of firing neurons and synaptic connections that can create new ways of perceiving any given situation. Like anything else, it just takes practice and dedication.  Actual stress ultimately is something that is actually occurring. The unfortunate circumstance that directly impacts you such as the loss of a loved one, getting fired from your job, a divorce, and any other event that is itself stressful.  This is not a perceived, potential negative outcome, but a current negative situation that we are experiencing.  Many times these situations cannot be avoided and stress will most definitely be experienced.  However, the benefit of understanding the difference between these two is that most often, the majority of our daily stress is perceived stress.  If we can truly understand this and make efforts to change it, then we can potentially reduce a large part of our total emotional stress. 

Stress Response in the Body

Stress results in the activation of the fight-or-flight response. This is a very real physiological reaction. Your body has a built in survival mechanism that enables you to react in an instant to a life-threatening situation. While this was incredibly useful for our ancestors who had to hunt for their food and be prepared to fend off a wild animal, living constantly in fight-or-flight mode has serious repercussions on our health. For example, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity and serious illness can all be originated simply from excessive, chronic stress.  There is not a doctor on this planet who wouldn’t agree that chronic stress is one of the biggest enemies of our health in today’s society.

So what exactly is happening while this response is triggered? Let’s look at the breakdown:

It all starts in the brain. A distress signal is sent to a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for processing emotional responses. The amygdala then interprets this signal, rewires it and sends an SOS to another area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which is considered the command center. After analyzing this message, the command center shoots out new signals to the entire body by way of the Autonomic Nervous System with one direct goal, alerting the body to prepare for incoming danger.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is made up of 2 parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is what initiates the fight-or-flight response. The PNS does the opposite, it relaxes the body into “rest and digest” mode after the threat has diminished. When the stress response is activated the adrenal glands are stimulated and they quickly release epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline) and cortisol into the blood stream. This results in a quickened heart beat, increased blood flow to extremities, an increase in blood pressure, dilation of the pupils of the eyes to accommodate for better sight of the surroundings, and release of sugar into the bloodstream for quick energy.  The entire body becomes ready for battle and on high alert. The main goal of the fight-or-flight response is to flood the body with energy in order to combat a threat.  This is a brilliant and well coordinated response by the body.  However, this response was never designed to be on more than it is off.  When we have a rotating door of physical, chemical, and emotional stressors attacking us from all angles these stress responses become harmful to the body.  If you look at the physical changes that happen to your body during stress you can easily see how they can be harmful over the long term.  Think about how harmful it can be to have long term:

  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Elevated blood sugar
  • Increased heart rate
  • Reduced blood to most of the organs (Due to increased blood flow to the extremities and muscles)

Again, most doctors on the planet would tell you that the conditions listed above are a recipe for illness and premature death.  And all of them can be caused simply by chronic stress.  This is why sometimes stress can be the limiting factor to improving overall health.  All the healthy salads in the world can counteract a chronic stressful state of being that is overwhelming your physiology.  The body is not meant to constantly be employing the stress response, it is meant to occur at a moments notice and then turn off.  Think of it like when you have to immediately slam on your breaks on the 405.  The quick response of the body keeps you safe and allows you to make quick decisions to preserve life.  Afterwards, your body should relax, return to normal physiology, and continue on with the rest of your day.

Ways to Counteract Stress

Stress is a part of the human experience, the key lies in how we respond. There is no possible way to completely eliminate stress from your life, so don’t even try.  We have all been in a situation where we felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel.  If we are truly unable to alter our situation we should start with focusing on techniques that help us manage the stress that we are experiencing.  While there are many tools that can be utilized, the one that works for you is the best one.  The important thing is to find what works for you and use it.  Some methods will take some practice, but don’t force yourself to continue with one method if it is not working for you.  There are plenty of apps, businesses, and training courses that can help you learn and improve your meditation, which is one of the best ways to counteract stress. However, taking part in any activity that helps to ‘clear’ your mind and fully absorb you into the present moment will do the trick as well.  This can be anything and is highly subjective, but some other ideas that are exceptional at reducing stress are:

  • Tai Chi
  • Yoga
  • Exercise (that you enjoy!)
  • Gardening
  • Walks in nature
  • Focused deep breathing
  • Positive visualization or daydreaming!
  • Social support and surrounding yourself with loved ones
  • Laughing is a sure fire way to reduce stress (funny movies are great for that)
  • Meditation apps (Headspace, Calm, Oak, etc)
  • Healthy daily routines
  • Grounding, plant those feet on the earth and feel the energy uplift you
  • Meditation classes (MDitate)

Remember, if you do not know how to begin to utilize one the techniques above, they can be learned! You just have to have acceptance over a circumstance and be willing to embrace an opportunity to reduce the stress in your life. You can always come into our office as well, we love to connect and provide a safe place for our patients to be themselves and offer space to recover.

The Benefits of Meditation

Mediation has long been used to combat stress.  However, until recently it was seen by many people as fringe-science or something only practiced by people with an extremely alternative lifestyle.  This perception is beginning to change quickly as science has now proven that there are many physiological benefits to meditating.  Some of these include:

  • Reduce Stress
  • Control anxiety
  • Reduce blood pressure
  • Improve sleep
  • Increase attention span
  • Generate kindness
  • Increase self-awareness

Again, a pretty important list and one that can have dramatic effects on your overall health.  If you have a difficult time getting started look into classes or an app to help you get accustomed to it.  However, the biggest obstacle always seems to be finding the time.  Start with just 5-10 minutes a day and expand your practice as you get better.

Assessing Your Stress Response

While the holidays are a great time to spend with family and take some time aways from work, they can also be very stressful.  This on top of an already stressful lifestyle for most people.  Knowing how many changes can happen in your body with stress it can be very beneficial to monitor your stress response system, which are your adrenal glands.  They not only have a direct effect on your sex hormone health (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone), but also a significant effect on your immune system, blood sugar, thyroid, and gut health.  We always suggest that people periodically check these systems by running a DUTCH test, which stand for Dried Urine Test for Comprehensive Hormones.  It gives you an unbelievable detailed look at your adrenal system and all other sex hormone metabolites.  Many times dysfunctions in these systems can cause poor sleep, anxiety, fatigue, reduced sex drive, brain fog, and decreased motivation.  If you are interested in uncovering your hormone profile contact our office today and purchase your kit directly from our office.

Hopefully this article has helped teach you a little bit more about stress and how it affects your body.  It is one of our Pillars of Health because of its significant effects to the body.  When trying to completely improve your health you must not forget to manage your stress levels appropriately so that all of your other health endeavors work more effectively and efficiently.  For more complete health advice feel free to contact our office anytime and ask about our Functional Medicine consultations and programs.