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What Is Stress & Why Is It So Damaging?


So in one of our last talks we looked at how to cope and deal with stress better.  Now we all have very different ideas as to what constitutes stress and there appears to be no single definition that everyone accepts.  But from a purely physiological view point, stress can be seen as a heightened response to both routine and out of the ordinary conditions and events.

The reality though is that we are all affected by stress but in very different ways but stress ultimately is a normal physiological response that we evolved to enable us respond to a stressful situation instantly.  Just imagine that you lived tens of thousands of years ago, at a time when humans were threatened by hungry animals such as sabre-toothed tigers and wolves. Back then our caveman ancestors had to be able to react instantly, either by fighting the beasts or running away.  Yet it is important to realise that stress does not even have to be real.  Real or imagined the body reacts in exactly the same way.  It cannot differentiate between the two.

The problem is that our bodies simply did not evolve this stress response with the intent of it being a 24/7 occurrence!  Originally it was designed to keep you alive, keeping you safe from dangerous predators!  And this is where our idea of a Health and Healing account is so useful as our reaction to stress and how well we cope depends on our ability to adapt.  In other words as long as we make more deposits than withdrawals we will adapt and resist the stress!   Unfortunately this is something that not many of us are doing: 70 – 80% of all GP visits are for stress related diseases and in fact over 75% of all illnesses are actually caused by stress. Recent evidence indicates that the physical changes associated with stress may contribute to the leading causes of death – heart disease and cancer. You are for example 4 to 5 times more likely to have a fatal heart attack or stroke if you experience constant levels of stress and anxiety.   Now to fully appreciate how to better cope with stress it is worth looking at how the body reacts!

As we mentioned stress causes a physiological response and as described by Hans Selye a famous endocrinologist the body goes through 3 stages in response to stressful situations.  The first stage is the Alarm Stage where the body senses a stressor and produces various hormones and chemicals which puts the body in to a fight or flight mode.  The second stage is the Resistance Stage where the body either adapts to the threat or successfully resists it and then the body returns to normal OR you don’t resist the threat and you move in to the Exhaustion Stage where the body fails to return to normal! In this stage your nervous system overreacts by continuously reacting as if your body has to run away or fight!  And this is obviously the stage where damage is done!

As you can see the body’s 3 stage response to stress is designed for one thing – that of survival! In fact in very simple terms the body is only ever designed to perform two different roles 1) Growth, Repair and Reproduction OR 2) Protection.  And unfortunately having only a finite amount of energy the body cannot do both at the same time.  A great example of this can be seen globally where if a Government increases its budget and spending on defence, cuts then have to be made in health and education!  Well our bodies are no different.  And research in mice has shown that stressed pregnant mothers produce bigger more aggressive babies with smaller brains whereas unstressed mothers produce smaller less aggressive more intelligent mice!

So with this in mind it is very easy to explain and visualise what happens in times of chronic stress: you get

a) Increased blood pressure – obviously in a fight or flight situation more blood is required by the muscles to provide energy. Overtime this can cause heart disease and/or high blood pressure.

b) Because more blood is required by your brain and the muscles in your arms and legs the blood has to be shunted away from the stomach and intestines which obviously can eventually lead to digestive problems.  When you think about it there is absolutely no point in your body wasting precious time and energy digesting your own lunch when it is trying to stop being lunch for something else.

c) Increased muscle tension for obvious reasons!

d) Similarly your immune system is shut down allowing your body to concentrate on fighting or running away from the source of stress.  This is caused primarily by the hormone cortisol which is produced in response to stress.  So in times of stress you become prone to infections and illness.  Bear in mind that we all have cancer cells in our body – in effect they are just rogue cells – however it is our immune system that stops and prevents them from proliferating!

e) Like your immune system slowing down so does healing and repair.  What appear to be innocuous injuries can take much much longer to heal, if ever!

f)  You become tired all the time – this tiredness is primarily due to adrenal fatigue, where your body tires of being on red alert but it is also due to insulin and sugar levels.  Paradoxically whilst you may be more tired your sleep actually becomes broken and interrupted!

g)  You cannot concentrate or focus on things.  Again this is a survival mechanism where you are ultra alert and jumpy, constantly looking around and fidgeting and more aggressive and moody.  This is sadly very noticeable in classrooms across the country; children who have poor concentration are labelled as trouble makers with ADD or ADHD and then criminally medicated with dangerous behavioural altering drugs such as Ritalin.

h) Chronic stress can lead to fertility problems, why worry about propagation when its your survival that is critical.

i)  Stress will lead to increased cholesterol levels!  As we discussed in previous Blogs, 85% of the body’s total cholesterol is made by the body itself.  Why? Because cholesterol is essential and one important role is in treating inflammation which can be caused by a sustained increase in blood pressure!  In other words the body is preparing itself for “war”!

Now hopefully at this stage you can see why stress is so damaging so if you suffer from any of these symptoms you too could be caught up in the stress fight or flight cycle!

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Pain and tension in the neck, shoulders or low back
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Recurrent infections, colds Irritability
  • Sleep problems
  • Allergies and sinus
    problems and/or
  • Digestive trouble
  • Fertility Problems
  • Behavioural problems

So how do you deal with stress?  Well as we will discuss in the next post it is not by masking the symptoms and warning signs!

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