Stress: Thief of WHealth

Social and technological advances have generated an environment in which stress abounds. We have yet to evolve the physiological means to cope with this avalanche. Understanding the underlying science equips you to start your journey in stress control.

“It is not stress that kills us. It is our reaction to it.” Hans Selye, considered by many to be the first scientist to demonstrate the biological response to stress.

You will read about stress in almost every popular magazine that you pick up today. Each generation seems to have boasted the highest stress levels in history. While hard to measure objectively, I think there is some validity in this claim over recent years. I don’t believe that the stress of individual major life events is any higher today than it was 100 years ago. Given our greater medical proficiency, we may actually encounter fewer health stresses than prior generations. Most would probably agree though, that the pace of modern life has escalated the volume of stressors significantly. We no longer wait for surface mail to bring problems to our attention. They arrive continuously in our email inboxes, and demand immediate resolution.

This is the same fundamental problem that threatens our WHealth in other ways: the (R)evolutionary Gap. Technological progress has vastly outpaced our biological evolution. Today we face an avalanche of stressful stimuli, but we have not yet had time for adaptations in our physical constitution that would enable us to manage them differently.

Stress may be the most explicit example of the deep interrelationship between body and mind. We usually use this term to denote a negative situation, describing an inappropriate response to an event (or even anticipation of an event). More accurately, we should probably call these situations “distress”. Stress itself is healthy. It is an adaptive response that prepares our body to handle the challenges of living. When you go beyond the healthy, stress becomes distress.

The challenges of our early ancestors were mainly physical. We had to run to escape or to catch, or we had to fight to protect ourselves. Nature ensured that they had rapid response systems that mobilized their internal resources to cope with these crises. When faced with imminent danger, their bodies released two critical hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, that switched their physiology into action mode and mobilized the energy they needed to respond. After the physical response, their bodies relaxed, and the temporary physiological disruption abated, with no lasting unwanted consequences. The system worked well.

Today, our stressors are very different. Very few of our crises are physical in nature. We seldom need to fight or take flight. When we do, our body still works beautifully. Today, most stressful stimuli are mental or emotional, and given our advanced cognitive abilities, it is often the anticipation of possible danger that triggers our physical stress response more than actual danger. Again, the (R)evolutionary Gap raises its ugly head. The rapid pace of societal transformation has outstripped our body’s ability to adapt. Instead of working with the new, improved rapid response system 2.0 (or even 8.0), which we have yet to develop, we must cope with this new and different stress landscape with the original version of the rapid response system (1.0). This is a huge problem.

Today, our busy day, or the thought of financial ruin, or the anticipation of being laid off still triggers release of the same two hormones, adrenalin and cortisol. But we don’t run around or fight. We don’t “use” these hormones to good effect. Instead, we flood the system with hormones we don’t need or use, that prepare our bodies for physical encounters that don’t happen, and this has significant cumulative negative consequences.

Add to this the shear volume of stress that we cope with on a daily basis, and the sleep deprivation that impairs our ability to recover between stressful days; we quickly advance into the territory of chronic stress overload.

Adrenalin activates the cardiovascular system. To fight or flight we need to have our heart and lungs pumping maximally to circulate oxygen to our furiously working muscles. When the threat is physical, and we actually have to break into a run, this physiological turbo boost is appropriate. Our body goes through this preparation even with mental and emotional stress, where we don’t need the cardiovascular response. Under these circumstances, chronic stress invites serious health risks like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Cortisol plays a more subtle role; it’s negative impact mainly on systems that you should be well familiar with by now – the inflammatory and immune systems. Excess cortisol, the result of prolonged stress, has a sinister impact on our inflammatory balance. It suppresses the inflammatory cytokines. The problem is that its most profound impact is on the beneficial cytokines that drive the anti-inflammatory army. Remember that this group, led by IL-10, is the force of rejuvenation that works against decay to keep us young. So, stress compounds the inflammatory overload we have from our sedentary life and excess of visceral body fat, increasing our risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

To make matters worse, when we are stressed, we tend to eat more and exercise less. This compounds our disastrous pro-inflammatory bias even further. It’s a powerful recipe for trouble.

Cortisol also suppresses the immune system. The recurring elevation in cortisol, which is the result of chronic stress, impedes our immune army, making us vulnerable to infection and cancer. We both develop more infections, and it takes us longer to recover from them. Our immune surveillance armies are weakened, so they overlook early cancers more easily, allowing them to establish themselves in our bodies. They same immune frailty leaves the immune army less capable of fighting established cancers.

Thus, our ancient design leaves us only modestly equipped to cope with the stresses of the modern era. We remain well suited to physical danger, but a surplus of adrenaline and cortisol, the consequence of omnipresent mental and emotional stress have significant negative impact on our health and happiness.

One of the powerful ways to control our stress is mindful breathing. Here, we use the power of the cognitive brain to control our breathing. This, in turn, induces physical and emotional changes that enable us to respond better. We reverse the negative physiological spiral that robs us of our WHealth.

Have fun,

Roddy

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