Stress: The Silent Killer

Close your eyes and think about a stressful situation you are dealing with. Really feel it.

As you do, if you pay attention to your body, you will notice a cascade of changes occurring. Your muscles tense, your jaw tightens, your breathing either becomes shallow as you pull inward in an almost instinctual protective posture or it speeds up as your heart races.

But other, often drastic changes are occurring that you might not even notice:

 

•     Cortisol, a stress hormone, floods your body, causing your blood pressure and blood
      sugar to rise, often leading to a craving for sugar and fats (hence, the binge eating
      when we feel stressed).

•     Cortisol also affects memory and interferes with the neurotransmitters that your brain
      needs to “think” clearly, so decision-making and other “executive” brain functions
      deteriorate. You lose effectiveness, and your productivity diminishes.

•     Adrenaline (epinephrine) races through your system, causing changes in your blood vessels that can lead to headaches,
      even migraines. Plus, it and its byproducts stress your immune system, causing it to be less effective. A weakened immune
      response means less protection against viruses, bacteria and other health threats.

     Cytokines, which activate the immune response and normally fight inflammation, stop working properly, and so
      inflammation increases. Inflammation has been tied to a host of auto-immune disorders and is increasingly thought to be
      at  the root of most chronic diseases.

In other words, prolonged stress—even at low levels—threatens your health.
 

But just what is stress? It is usually thought of the flight-or-fight response. It’s a built-in physiological response that protects us from harm.

If we see a bear, our bodies immediately go through a complex series of changes that help us survive by shutting down non-essential functions and funneling all our energy toward those functions that matter—energy for muscle response, heightened vision or perception, increased respiratory capacity. In other words, we prepare to defend ourselves or to run!

But these days, there aren’t too many of us who are threatened by bears. So why are we so stressed out?

What Is Stress?

The answer is as individual as each one of us. I might love flying to distant lands for vacation. Just the thought of getting on an airplane might have you quaking in your boots. Your best friend might thrive on multi-tasking. Having to do too many tasks in too short a time period might send you spinning out of control.

Stress is perceptual. It’s not what is actually happening around us or to us, it is how we respond to or perceive those events and situations. So what’s stressful for me may not stress you at all.

Where stress was once thought to be “all in the head,” we now know that its effects are very real in the body.

If you are experiencing a short burst of stress—say, you are nervous about giving a speech—then there’s no worry. Once the stressful situation passes, your body will return to normal. But if you are experiencing prolonged, day-to-day low-grade stress, then your stress response never gets turned off. It’s like your body has its foot on the gas pedal of your physiology and never hits the brakes. Eventually, you run out of gas—you get sick.

Many physicians and researchers believe that chronic stress is at the root of 70% of doctor visits and 80% to 90% of all chronic illnesses. They know it increases your risk for heart disease and stroke, and contributes to inflammation, aggression, depression, weight gain (especially around the belly), digestive problems, insomnia, hair loss, infertility, reduced wound healing, memory loss, and accelerated aging. There is even evidence that prolonged stress can increase your risk for diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and other severe health conditions.

But here’s the good news—it is relatively easy to reduce the negative health effects of stress. And the “treatments” cost you nothing

Strategies for Reducing Stress

Studies and therapeutic experience have shown that the following practices greatly reduce the physiological effects of stress if undertaken on a regular basis:

 

Cultivate happiness or positive emotions and thoughts. Laugh more. It’s that easy! One 10-year study showed that people with an optimistic outlook had half the risk of heart disease as people who were more pessimistic. Even faking a smile changes your physiology in positive ways. Imagine how much more powerful the beneficial effects are when you are cultivate a positive outlook and stop spending so much time sweating the things that are beyond your control or that don’t really matter in the long run. Optimism, not pessimism, is like medicine to your body-mind and has very real health effects.

Exercise, especially working your cardiovascular system. Exercise is a great stress-buster, helping the body to tamp down the hormonal cascade that stress causes, thus improving both your health and your moo

Meditate or practice a “relaxation response” technique. A regular meditation practice of only 20 minutes a day has been shown to have tremendous health benefits across the board, including cutting your risk of heart attack by up to 40%. It is also proven to be effective at “rewiring” your brain and slowing down the mental and physical effects of aging.

Use aromatherapy. Natural, not synthetic, clinical-grade essential oils have a powerful healing and, in many cases, calming effect on physiology and psychology. Smell is our most primal sense, and aromatherapy activates these deep and primitive centers of the brain, which in turn influence physiology. Also, pure, therapeutic-quality essential oil quickly gets through the skin and into your blood stream and is able to cross the barrier of cell walls, often in 30 to 60 seconds, so positive changes can occur exceptionally quickly.

 

Use energy therapies, from Reiki to Healing Touch to sound healing. Conventional science may not be able to be explain exactly how these energy therapies work, but their effects on reducing anxiety and stress, and thus on improving health, are well documented.

Cultivate a strong social network. Research has shown that people with a vibrant social life and good social support system tend not only to be happier but also far healthier than those who are more isolated. The effect appears to go all the way down to your DNA—the quality of your social life actually affects the expression of your genes!

Most of us value our health, and we are willing to work to maintain it. We take supplements and vitamins, work out, eat right. But we forget that stress is the great silent killer. When it comes to health, gauging the level of stress in your life should be your number-one priority. If your level is high, then reducing stress is the best strategy you can take to maintain vibrant health.

How Are You Handling Stress?

But wait! There is one other consideration, and it’s another aspect of stress that most people don’t know about. It pays to know not only how much stress you have in your life, but also how your body is dealing with it. Some people are more resilient than others when it comes to emotionally and physically handling stress. Whereas one person can seem to cope with a lot of stress without coming down with a cold or tossing all night in their sleep, others can feel the troubling effects of just a little stress. Where do you fall on that resilience spectrum?

There is a quick, easy and accurate way to gauge how your body is handling stress, and it all starts with your heart. The beat-to-beat changes in your heart—what is called “heart rate variability”—is one of the primary ways to determine how much stress you have and how that stress is affecting you physiologically. If you are curious to know more, read the “What Is Heart Rate Variability?” page of this website. And check out the HeartQuest page (in the Wellness Center Bioenergetic Therapies drop-down list). HeartQuest is a system for quickly and non-invasively measuring your heart rate variability and providing insight into how well (or not!) your nervous system is working. 

 

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