Fight or Flight...are YOU the real enemy?
Stress: The Self-Inflicted Health Epidemic
There are no awards for living a stress-filled life.
Why has it become a source of pride to fill our lives with stress? “I am SO stressed right now!” “Our schedules are crazy but I have a high stress threshold.” Even though people seem to be complaining, they are also bragging or one-upping each other. Everyone wants you to know they live a stressful life! Unfortunately, this condition isn’t limited to millennials or boomers – just ask my 78-year-old mother about her week and she will give a huge sigh before telling you, “We have been SO BUSY!”
Most of us are too stressed to be healthy but there are ways to reduce the stress in our lives.
First of all, occasional or short-term stress should not be harmful, and may even be beneficial. The occasional, or temporary, “fight or flight” response may be good for memory, clarity, and motivation. The brain sends triggers to the adrenals which then produce hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol raises blood pressure and blood sugar, which will be helpful if you need to outrun a lion but not so much if you are stuck in traffic or worried about losing your job. So, while cortisol is intended for your good, when you are in a constant state of stress high cortisol levels can cause much damage to your health.
One of the side effects of high cortisol levels is the appearance of cravings, especially for sugar or fat – ice-cream, chocolate, or cookies are prime examples. We often call this response “emotional eating” and most of us have experienced it at some time in our lives. A health coach can help recognize the triggers, prepare for the craving, and avoid the usual binge which results.
Cortisol may be trying to help but...
Weight gain, although partially attributed to poor eating habits when busy lives reduce our lunch options to the drive-through window, is a natural consequence of the elevated cortisol levels for two reasons. The first one was mentioned above – increased cravings which add too many calories to our daily food intake. However cortisol also increases the body’s tendency to hang onto fat, especially belly fat, because it’s job is to keep a good supply of energy on hand for that “flight or fight” situation your body is constantly experiencing. This means that dieting and/or working out will be relatively ineffective unless the stress levels are reduced.
Stress causes muscles to contract which can contribute to headaches due to tense neck and shoulders. Adrenaline and cortisol cause vascular changes which may result in the typical tension headache or migraine but there are also a great number of people who suffer during the “let-down” period following stress. It was almost guaranteed that my dad would experience a full-blown migraine any time he tried to take a weekend off or a family vacation! This did NOT mean that he shouldn't take time off, but that he didn't do it soon enough.
Too much cortisol can interfere with neurotransmitters, decreasing mental clarity and memory retrieval. Cortisol can also interfere with your ability to create new memories.
Cortisol raises blood sugars, again in preparation for dealing with imminent danger, so stress can be a huge problem for anyone who is already a Type 2 Diabetic. Constant high blood sugar may also be a factor in developing Type 2 Diabetes.
Some of the symptoms I listed in my previous blog may have surprised you. (See "Your Stress Marks are Showing", Nov 1/18)
Many symptoms of stress are so intertwined that we have come to expect them to occur together but sometimes we need some background to understand why we are experiencing them.
Back pain? Those tense neck and shoulder muscles we usually blame for headaches are often responsible for tight back muscles, too.
Colds? When your body is constantly functioning in the fight or flight mode, it will not repair or properly defend against attacks on your immunity system.
Sex appeal? A study actually found that women were less attracted to men whose levels of cortisol were higher. Apparently they can sense this - or, is it the "stress-sweat" we hear about in the antiperspirant ads? It is theorized that low levels of stress hormones indicate strength and health which our ancestors perceived as desirable in a mate.
Premature aging? Chronic stress actually affects your chromosomes and causes your cells to age faster! However, and even more obvious to me, all of the side effects will make you feel, act, and look older than your years. Pain, frustration, fatigue, unhappiness, depression, and brain-fog do not present a picture of youth!
Chronic stress is NOT your friend!
Even when you are “managing” (read: not dying), you are putting your health in jeopardy. Even if you think you are only hurting yourself, doing what you have to do for your boss or family, you need to rethink this. How will it affect your job, spouse, children, parents, siblings, and friends if you become chronically ill or die? I am a firm believer in serving and sacrificing out of love, responsibility, and duty, and nowhere do we demonstrate that more than in our roles as parents and spouses. BUT, it is also true that we cannot pour anything from an empty vessel so my job as a health coach may include helping you declutter and prioritize your life to better care for yourself.
The only real solution is to reduce, or better yet, eliminate stress!
Your health may depend on this. Please remember, like all health issues, stress management depends upon a combination of thoughts, actions, and beliefs because “whole” health includes the mind, body, and soul:
1. Vitamin “S” (Sunshine!). A few minutes breathing fresh air, embracing the sights, sounds, and smells can do wonders to take your mind off your concerns. The extra Vitamin D may elevate your levels of serotonin, a feel-good hormone. Even a great window view or indoor plants can help lower your blood pressure.
2. A consistent routine is comforting and allows us to feel in control whether it is a pre-bedtime bath or a morning walk. Choose something you enjoy, either restful or mind-clearing, and just do it!
3. Shut down those never-ending negative thoughts and create relaxation by engaging in activity of rhythmic movement – anything from knitting or bread-kneading (my personal favourite), to exercise.
4. Prayer or meditation. Many cultures use prayer beads. Turning to God helps us to detach from stress and gives us hope but even if you are not religious, a mantra or affirmation to which you can turn in times of stress can help you relax and increases your sense of power.
5. Visualization is one of my favourite coaching techniques. Transported to our happy place we actually produce less cortisol, and studies have shown that those who visualize change, improvement, or success are much more likely to attain them.
6. A bath can be soothing especially if the experience is heightened with dim lights, soft music, and/or aromatherapy. (Please use natural, healthy essential oils, not artificial fragrance, plug-ins, and candles.)
7. Expressing gratitude can help increase the production of dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Gratitude = happiness is one of my mantras, and a good principle to live by. It is pretty hard to feel grateful and stressed at the same time.
8. Exercise helps your body produce yet another set of feel-good chemicals, endorphins.