The Ravages of Stress

 

Stress can be a  “silent killer”. It also can be a beneficial component to life's many challenges.  Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal was part of a  revolutionary study through the University of Wisconsin-Madison which studied 30,000 people for 8 years. She spoke on a recent TED talk, and changed my view of stress forever.  In a nutshell, she said, how we THINK about stress,  changes how stress affects us.  Over the 8 years- 182,000 deaths were tracked. They were the ones who believed that stress was bad for them. People who did not believe that stress was bad, had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study . "When you choose to view your stress response as helpful-you create the biology of courage. When you choose to connect with others under stress- you can create resilience. " Now, we are of course talking about short term stress. And she is suggesting that we reframe our thoughts about stress to: It is re-energizing and up-lifting. For example , it can boost our immune system or get us through that mid-term exam. Hans  Selye, the renowned researcher of stress, discovered the dangers of the stress response. But he made a distinction between eustress (a positive experience or stress like when you are enjoying a rollercoaster ride) and distress ( when you tell yourself you don’t like the feeling and experience that you’re having).

STRESS MAKES YOU SOCIAL! Oxytocin is a neuron hormone that fine tunes your brain's social instincts. It primes you to do things that strengthens close relationships. Through stress, you crave physical contact with friends and family. It enhances your empathy and encourages you help and support people you care about.

It is motivating you to seek support. Your biological support is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. It helps you notice when someone else is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.

How is knowing this side of stress going to make you healthier? 

Because Oxytocin acts not only on your brain, but on your body as well. It's main role is to protect the cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It's a natural anti-inflammatory. Oxytocin helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress AND it effects your HEART. Your heart has receptors for this hormone. Oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress induced damage This stress hormone strengthens your heart. All these effects are enhanced by social contact and social support When you reach out under stress to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone, your stress response becomes healthier, and you recover faster from stress

We are not trying to understate the devastating affects that stress can have on today's world. Living with the stressors of everyday life can be overwhelming. In fact, that is what stress is. Stress is anything that pushes you over and beyond what your body, mind and spirit can withstand or handle. In my own life, I have had to battle the stress response. I became the foster-mom of my niece, who had hyperthyroidism, when she was 2 years old and I eventually was able to adopt her when she was four. I was already raising 4 children and working full-time. In addition, my mother (who had COPD, dementia, and kidney neuropathy) came to live with me after she broke her hip. After 4 years of caring for my mother, my father came to live with me as well. This required putting an addition onto my home. He also had dementia, 4 heart by-pass surgeries and 3 heart attacks, spondylitis, and more). I also had gone back to school so more stress existed. In addition,  my middle-daughter was diagnosed with narcolepsy and my sister with life-threatening scoliosis. My mother passed away and I also lost my brother at the same time. So, I do have a personal experience and understanding of the stress-response and I have been able to find balance, health and peace through holistic lifestyle changes. 

There are external and internal stressors. The external ones may be financial pressures, work and school demands, relationships, moving or illness, or overbooked schedules. The internal stressors are things like chronic worrying, pessimistic attitudes, negative self- talk, unrealistic expectations (“super mom”), all-or-nothing attitude, or unwilling to be flexible. What is difficult about these stressors is that they do not seem to let up. So as each day goes by, you get accustomed to the intensity of living within at this whirlwind frequency. This high level demand on your mindbody takes it’s toll eventually. You may have frequent headaches or neck and back spasms. You may feel dizzy or lightheaded. You may sweat more. Your immune system lowers and you become susceptible to infections and colds. You have less energy and may be emotionally drained. You may not even get excited about anything anymore. This can cause you to lose appetite or, oppositely, eat more.

Mentally, there may be excessive anxiety, panic attacks , worry and guilt. Your level of frustration and impatience increases and you become increasingly more angry. You may become depressed or have difficulty concentrating. Your ability to focus and learn even is effected. Family and friends begin noticing, perhaps before your do, that you have developed nervous habits, like tapping your fingers or experiencing interrupted sleep. You are annoyed more easily and may even develop compulsive behaviors.  Life has just gotten harder and there seems to be less joy.

A normal amount of stress is part of life. It heightens our awareness and we can be productive, creative and efficient. An abnormal stress level or continual stress level is deadly. If a saber-tooth tiger was running after us in pre-historic times, we would need the adrenal rush to out-run the animal and head for safety. That is a good amount of stress response. But, unfortunately, in today’s continuum of stress-response, our adrenal glands are overworked and this creates all sorts of hormonal imbalances. This next part speaks in more detail to the physiological response to stress.

Remember what is paramount is our perception of the stressor.  If you perceive there is a snake in the road instead of a rope, your posterior hypothalamus will be stimulated and your pituitary gland will put out some epinephrine for the “fight, flight or freeze” response. But remember the list of possible stressors going on? This means the stress response can continue, especially if we do not take seriously, this idea of reframing our thoughts. If your pituitary continues to be stimulated, other hormonal responses occur. Your TSH (Thyroid stimulating hormone) stimulates the thyroid and increases thyroxin ,which in turn, increases your metabolism. If it is just for a short period, no problem. But, if continual stress response is the norm then ADH (Anti-diuretic hormone) is secreted and this increases your kidney’s water absorption. As if that isn’t bad enough, ACTH (Adrenocorticotrophic hormone) also put out by the pituitary gland,  stimulates the adrenal cortex and this is when you flood your body with steroid hormones. The elevated TSH and ACTH levels inhibit the secretion of your growth hormone and others ( FSH, LH and prolactin).

So the snowball effect continues. The Adrenal Cortex secretion of steroid hormones (Glucocorticoids or Cortisol) destroys the eosinophils and lymphocytes and this decreases your immune system. AND this causes glucocorticoids to raise the blood sugar in your liver. This increases the mineralocorticoids which increase the sodium and decrease the potassium absorption and can create inflammation of your kidneys. Meanwhile, the pancreas decreases the insulin because it believes the liver has plenty of sugar. The “all clear” signal is perceived and communicates this to the hypothalamus. This sends an inhibitory impulse to your pituitary so the sugar imbalance is created. 

So one fix is to perceive the rope is in the road- not the snake. Easier said then done, right? By this I mean, you can decide what is your problem and what is not your problem. You create boundaries in your life. You put self-care on the top of the list. This lessens the load and gives support to YOU.   You can observe the intensity of a situation and create tools and lifestyle behaviors to support yourself through this period of life.  You can begin to notice when the stress is building. You pay attention to what other loved ones are telling you about your stress level. You become aware of the self- talk you do when you feel stressed. You no longer give yourself negative messages, and instead create positive messages. You hold space in your mind for the gratefulness of the stress response. These becomes a mantra as you establish realistic do's and don'ts in your life. and feel more at peace. 

Next time you are stressed: Think….

“THIS IS MY BODY HELPING ME RISE TO THIS CHALLENGE.”

There are many ways in which you can balance the stress in your life. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it is possible. The stressful situation may not change, but YOU can. Managing stress requires a nutritious diet, exercise, good sleep, a support system and much more.  If you are suffering from stress (or know of someone who is) and it is ruining your (their) life, please contact me at:

 cindy@breath-in-wellbeing.com and visit my website: www.breathe-in-wellbeing.com