Ask anyone at nearly anytime of their life about their stress levels and most will tell you that they are “stressed.” Some may say I am, “stressed out” or “stressed to the maxed” or “stressed beyond belief” or countless other modifiers used to further describe the feelings of stress. The word “stress” presents those of us who treat stress-related illnesses with some challenges. Firstly, stress is a word used by physicists to describe “tension exerted on a material object.” Of course when most people talk about stress, they are talking about psychological stress which has a physiological effect on the body. This kind of stress is defined as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.”
When we experience an event that we decide is stressful, it is interpreted by our brain which stimulates parts of the brain such as the amygdala and hypothalamus which then sends hormones to the pituitary gland which then sends hormones to the adrenal glands (on top of the kidneys) which in turn release cortisol. Cortisol has many roles in the body including raising blood sugar to make fuel available to muscles and suppressing parts of the immune system response. At the same time as the pituitary gland releases hormones to stimulate the release of cortisol, another chemical signal is sent to the adrenal glands causing them to release a hormone called adrenaline. Adrenaline raises our heart rate, dilates pupils, raises blood pressure, moves blood away from the gut and distributes to muscles.
These physiological responses to stress are called the stress response or you may know it as “Fight or Flight.” This highly effective response to perceived danger is one of the most important evolutionary adaptations that allowed us, and other animals, to escape danger or to fight for our lives. Stress and the response to stress is completely normal. The problem is that we have the same response to running from a warring tribe as we do to receiving a negative comment on social media. What should happen after the stress response is that once the stressful situation is over, your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels should return to normal. If, however, your life is filled with events that you perceive as stressful, then your physiology may stay elevated. This is chronic stress and it is a problem.
Chronically elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels can lead to Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, strokes, dementia, and other diseases. If you are wondering how significant a problem stress is in our lives, most adults rate their average stress as approximately 5/10 – that’s half-way to relining everyday! Each successive generation since the Baby Boomers have reported increasing levels of stress. Most people rate money and work as the two most stressful things in their life.
Fortunately, there are somethings we can do to help ameliorate the effects of chronic stress and it begins with re-framing what we think about stress. A recent study demonstrated that when researchers followed a group of people for many years who reported their levels of stress, in the ones who reported their stress as “very high”, 43% of them had died prematurely BUT it was only true if they also reported that they believed stress was “bad for them.” Those who had high reported levels of stress but did not believe stress was harmful, had less chance of suffering a premature death compared with those who reported little to no stress at all!
Mediation and mindfulness practices have been shown to reduce anxiety, reduce feelings of perceived stress and improve feelings of well-being. Meditation can also shrink the amygdala which is the part of the brain that stimulates the Fight or Flight response.
Stress is not the problem. Chronic stress is the problem. To reduce chronic stress, immediately know that stress is not harmful if the stress response is permitted to return to baseline. To do this, start by removing things from your life that are constant triggers for stress. Is it social media? Is it texting? These things create a medical condition called anticipatory anxiety. People literally experience anxiety if texts are not returned quickly or somebody does not comment or “like” a post. Why add more stress to your life? Quit the bad habit or at least change your expectations with the technology. Consider beginning a mediation practice or regular mindfulness activities. This will help get your physiology get back to baseline.
If you are unsure about how to begin meditation practices, we are now offering FREE meditation classes three days a week at Ekahi Center.