StressPosted 9 years ago under Uncategorized
Stress is nothing new, and it has been with us since time began. In its most basic incarnation we are stressed when we are threatened, when faced with fight or flight.
Stress focuses our mind and sharpens our wits. Stress can help give us the edge we need to survive. Large amounts of stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline) can enable us to do amazing things, feats beyond what we could do under any other circumstances. (1)
There is a lot to be learned about how this process takes place in our bodies, and science has not yet teased apart all the parts of this complex phenomena. Ethical restraints prevent scientists from recreating life or death circumstances for study.
Studying the effects of chronic stress on physiological systems is more accessible.
We are better designed for extreme stress. The kinds of stressors that we encounter today are usually more of the low-level, ongoing variety. Relationship troubles, financial difficulties, abrasive bosses, these are the kinds of ongoing stress that we are more likely to encounter. Our bodies are not well equipped to handle long term, chronic stress. Ongoing stress can bring on a multitude of diseases that can send us to an early grave.
The Japanese call this Karoshi, which means death from overwork. But it is the stress from work that kills us, not the work itself. That is, the stress and lack of sleep from overwork, which further adds to our stress. (2)
It is common knowledge that being on low on sleep makes us ill equipped to handle stress. What’s less commonly known and just as important is being well nourished in order to handle stress. B vitamins are the best vitamins to help cope with stress, but it is important to note that taking B vitamin supplements that aren’t balanced with all of the eight different kinds of B vitamins can make us deficient in the other B vitamins. (3)
Stomach ulcers were the first disease linked to chronic stress. It took many more years of research to learn that many diseases are linked to chronic stress.
The old saying “whatever doesn’t kill us, just makes us stronger” doesn’t hold true when it comes to chronic stress.
Mice subjected to chronic stress had smaller brains, less connections formed in their brains and less brain cells. The areas of the brain associated with learning and memory were in particularly bad shape.
Chronic stress kills human brain cells as well, and it has also been shown to lower I.Q. When we are stressed our ability to use our higher-level thinking (our frontal lobes) are disrupted, as well as our ability to access our memories.
Chronic stress may shorten telomeres. Telomeres are at the ends of our DNA strands. Every time a cell divides, telomeres are slightly shortened by the cell’s division. So by shortening telomeres, chronic stress can shorten lifespan, and make one age faster. Centenarians tend to possess two common traits: long telomeres and a low stress approach to life. (4)
Good stress, bad stress
An upside of stress is that it can be an effective motivator. Ever heard that old adage “I work best under pressure”. The right amount of stress sharpens our focus. The right amount of stress coupled with an optimistic outlook hones athletic performance. Under the right circumstances stress can be our ally.
The difference between good stress and bad stress is mostly in how we perceive the circumstances. The majority of people conceive of stress they think of it as something that happens to them, from external factors. Like straws on a camel’s back, and one too many was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This idea of one too many is often extended to mental institutions and prisons; often people wonder… “What made those people snap?”
The idea of too much, too many is a good model for physical stress. Bridges, houses, and buildings are all built to withstand a certain amount of physical stress. Subjected to too much stress at once, or too much stress over an extended period of time and then the structures collapse.
Emotional stress doesn’t need to affect the body in the same way. All of our stress passes through our minds before it goes on to affect our bodies. Our thinking about stress either magnifies our stress or it dampens it. Many of us think of our jobs as stressful, our boss as stressful, or traffic as stressful. Although some occupations are more stressful than others we can mitigate the intensity of our stress by changing the way we think about it. Being stuck in traffic isn’t fun either, but we can all take a deep breath, and listen to enjoyable music, instead of obsessing about how much time we’re wasting looking at the sea of brake lights ahead. It is the way we react to these situations, our thinking about them that makes these situations stressful, more so than the actual stressors.
Many people thrive under stress, while others do not. Usually the difference is in perception, but also it helps when events are seen as being somewhat under their control.
Where you are in your corporate hierarchy also matters a great deal. When your boss tells you that his or her job is more stressful than yours they’re probably lying if not to you, then at least to themselves. Numerous studies have shown that stress is lower at the top of corporate structures, not the other way around. The higher rank someone is the less stress they have. How much authority someone has is a good predictor of stress, longevity and it also helps to prevent disease. Rank does indeed have its privileges.
Those who do well under stress also do not wallow in negative events. As an example, lawyers and doctors have stressful occupations. The difference between a lawyer or a physician coping well with their stressful careers in part lies in their ability to leave their job at work, and not take the stress home with them. To those who thrive in stressful jobs, their jobs are rarely all that stressful-because they don’t perceive them to be that way. To them their job is challenging.
The right kind of stress is stimulation. The good kind is that thrill we get from a rollercoaster ride, the rush we get from a good horror movie, or the exhilaration we get from watching a sports game. Even in these examples, the way we perceive the stress is key. (5)
Take sports for instance. It’s possible to become too emotionally involved in sports, even as a spectator. Sports fans have a way of feeling both the triumphs and failures of their favorite teams. Taken too far, this can be unhealthy.
In one study, researchers tracked the health outcomes of soccer fans. The Dutch fans of the European Cup Soccer game were devastated by their teams’ loss. The Dutch fans risk of heart attack increased by 50% shortly following the game.
So stress can take a lot out of us. Evolved out of dire necessity stress hormones divert energy away from reproduction, tissue repair, digestion, anything non-critical. Our bodies’ design is to worry about these things later, if there is a later. This can allow us to do incredible things, when life or death is at stake.
When stress is ongoing, it hurts our health and it takes away from our quality of life. Looking for a way to cope many people try to self medicate when they are chronically stressed. Drug use and alcohol abuse is a common attempt to cope with stress.
There are other adaptive ways to foster resilience. Caring and compassion create resistance to stress. Connecting with others, and sharing a laugh are powerful ways to mitigate the harmful affects of stress. (6)
Oxytocin is the body’s natural antidote to stress. Known as the cuddle hormone it has anti-inflammatory properties. It also promotes healing, especially cardiovascular damage. (7)
Positive emotions also spur on the enzyme telomerase, an enzyme that can actually repair telomeres.
Some amount of stress is actually good for us, and without some stress boredom sets in. The key to coping with stress is to see hardships as challenges, if you can view some stress as helpful then it mimics the biological changes induced by joy and courage. The trick is to change your perception of stress from a negative thing to a positive motivator.
There are a number of techniques you can use to bring the pressure back down to optimal levels. These include some of the old standbys like deep breathing, exercise, humor, meditation, spending time in natural surroundings, and sharing your troubles with your friends as well as natural supplements. (8)
If you feel that your life is stressful, and there’s no avoiding stress you’re right-stress is unavoidable. Life has a way of giving us ups and downs. There are choices with how we react to life’s setbacks. The choices are in the reaction. These choices are actually life and death, this may sound melodramatic but it is true, giving in to negative emotions, and becoming “stressed out” can and does send many people to an early grave. We have a choice in the way we perceive life, and perception as it turns out becomes our reality.