Saturday, 4 August 2012

Mind the Stress

Because I work in an industry that assists  people to relax their bodies to reduce pain, increase range of motion, and generally function more happily, I talk with my clients about the physical and mental stresses in their lives and how it contributes to unwellness in their bodies.
People don't know how bad long term stress can be for their health. I mean most of us know it isn't very nice to be feeling "stressed"- either physically with tension in our bodies that create pain and immobility, or mentally with a brain that feels overwhelmed, exhausted, not able to think clearly. But I have noticed that people don't realise how long term, untreated stress can make you very sick.
The stress response, often termed "Flight, Fight or Freeze" is that rush of adrenaline the human body produces and releases when faced with a sudden stressful situation. Adrenaline pumped into the bloodstream causes stored starch to be converted to glucose, which in turn is sent to the bloodstream. This causes a whole range of body responses that most effectively equip the body to best deal with the circumstance at hand.... blood sugar rises, metabolic rate increases, breathing rate increases, the heart beats faster to pump blood and oxygen to the brain (for most effective thinking) and all other body parts (for most effective action), the pupils in the eyes dilate ( all the better to see the "danger" with), and the production of blood clotting factor increases( in preparedness for any injury that may result).  An example of this might be when we are driving along and a car "appears from nowhere!" or some other sudden life threatening situation. In a less frightening way this stress response is also at play while we watch our favourite sports team play a final("nail-biting " or "edge of the seat" feelings), or enter an exam, or job interview, or go out on a first date. In all these instances it is the "rush" of adrenaline, and the effects it has on the body, that best prepare us to most effectively address the situation towards the most positive outcome. Then, afterwards, the brain observes there is no more need for it, and the stress response ends.....and heart rate, breathing rate, metabolic rate, pupils, blood sugar, blood clotting factor all return to normal levels. The stress response is meant to be short, sharp, and efficient, and then OVER.....until the next "situation" occurs.
But, these times in which we live often create ongoing stress in lives. The body can even cope okay with a little ongoing stress. This is the stress that might include relationship problems, financial worry, unemployment, work deadlines- it is going to be in ones life for a little while. In cases like this the brain directs the adrenal glands to produce cortisol.  Cortisol causes the body to convert it's protein stores into glucose. Cortisol causes pretty much the same response throughout the body as adrenaline( see above), but because there is a lot more stored protein in the body cortisol can maintain that range of "performance enhancing symptoms" for a longer time than the instantaneous "rush" created by adrenaline. This system works well and can sustain physical or mental performance for days or even weeks. Interestingly, cortisol also has a natural anti-inflammatory effect and allows a person to focus on a stressful circumstance without being distracted by aches or pains of a minor nature.
But when people allow stress to dominate their lives for months at a time, without regular breaks to allow cortisol levels to return to base levels, health can become compromised.
 Here is why:
If the increased metabolism continues there is the potential for health problems such as type 2 diabetes( from the maintained high blood sugar and the demand this places on the pancreas), panic attacks( from the increased-often shallow- breathing rate), Skin rashes( from the increased circulation to the skin), insomnia( the increased circulation to the brain), hypertension and compromised heart health( from the maintained increased heart rate), weight loss( not fat loss, but protein loss!), increased chance of thrombosis( from the production of blood clotting factor, and adrenal gland overload and eventual collapse.
As well as these concerns, the human body is not meant to be exposed to cortisol for extended periods of time because the anti-inflammatory property of cortisol suppresses the human immune system. Our immune systems produce antibodies and cells to fight disease and maintain fluid balance within the body. Ongoing stress over months will mean a person will more easily get sick, possibly be sicker than if there was not ongoing stress, and remain sick for longer, due to a compromised immune system.
The body is constantly replacing cells that die with new ones and throughout that process sometimes cells are produced "wrongly," some having the potential to become cancer cells.  These cells are produced due to exposure to viruses, bacteria, chemicals,  radiation, or toxins in our environment.  It is the immune system that, on a daily basis, notices, removes, and destroys these cells before they can multiply into a problem. So, another reason its important to limit exposing the body to long term stress.
Here's an idea:
I certainly can't tell people to remove stress from their lives- short term "stressful" events make our lives interesting and provide challenges that allow our spirits to grow.
But if optimal health and wellness is to be achieved it is so important to allow cortisol levels, and all it's effects, to regularly return to minimal. Then the body, it's immune system, and the whole person can recover before undertaking the next challenge.
It's as simple as converting long term stress into short term "parcels." Beacuse our bodies can cope fine with short term stress. Once people know about the health risks of long term ongoing stress, it can be easier to put this kind of stress management in place.....
As stress levels get to a point of "making you feel mentally or physically sick"(preferably before) step away for a time ..... Plan a day trip away, have a massage, become immersed in a good book, meditate, exercise in an enjoyable way, spend time at a hobby you love, listen to some music, go dancing........Whatever you choose to do tell yourself that for this while you won't think about your regular stuff, it will always be there later, and you will be more effective when you're in optimal health. Then return to regular life, notice your stress levels increasing, and repeat the process....... With maybe an hour a day, or a couple of hours a week, or a few hours each month( whichever is best for your lifestyle) spent this way, you will be so much healthier.

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