Stress and you
We know that we live in a very stressful society. Our jobs, our commutes to and from our jobs, our families, the economy, worries about politics, worries about world conflicts, worries about relationships—these things have an effect on our emotions and minds.
The problem is, when our emotions are disturbed, it’s not isolated to one part of our brain. The human brain is very complex, and it controls a very complicated mechanism—the human body.
Think of it this way: all modern cars are pretty complex, and are controlled by at least one computer. That computer monitors stuff like oxygen, transmission temperature, oil pressure, engine speed, fuel/air mixture, engine temperature, and so on. And if that computer gets messed up, even if everything else was perfectly fine before, suddenly your car is going to start to malfunction.
The human brain controls functions in the body that are related to temperature regulation, pulse, breathing, digestion, muscle actions, nerve function, and many other areas. Something that disturbs or disrupts the functioning of the brain... the mind... will inevitably have an impact (large or small) on the body.
When you accidentally step on a snake while hiking, your brain may say to the rest of your body, “Aaahhh! Do something!!” This is due to what is called the “Fight or Flight” reaction. Some of us react more violently than others, either by lashing out at the snake, or by fleeing in fear. (Sometimes a third option is added to the mix: Freeze, where the person is so frightened they simply can’t do anything at all!)
Our brain is wired to react to things like this, to preserve us. When primitive man suddenly came upon a lion in the jungle, he needed to either run like heck to escape, or maybe use a club or spear to fight the lion. The brain causes the body to be pumped full of adrenaline, cortisol, and other chemicals, to help in either getting away or in defeating the attacker. And you NEED that, if you are being chased by a lion.
But we are not our ancient ancestors. And the brain, as smart as it is, has a hard time differentiating between lion glaring at us across a clearing, or our boss threatening to fire us if we don’t get our job done. So, no matter our position in life, if we are stressed, our body produces these chemicals.
Unfortunately, those hormones have effects on us that we may not realize, especially when the stress is ongoing. We may need that extra adrenaline boost when we are trying to get out of a burning building, but that is a short-term thing. It’s when our bodies are subjected to stress chronically (i.e. a bad marriage, a job we hate, being in a war zone, etc.) that the stress really starts to have a harmful effect on us.
When you are in a stressful situation, you may have noticed a variety of effects: your palms may get sweaty, your breathing gets faster, your body feels warmer, your pulse races. But there are other effects you may not notice.
Adrenaline causes your blood glucose level to skyrocket, because your body thinks you may need extra energy to fight an enemy, or to escape a threat by running. Your arm and leg muscles will tighten up, making you feel stiff. Neck muscles tighten up, and back pain or headache is often the result.
Cortisol (another chemical produced by stress) is something our body needs, in moderation. But in a long-term or chronic stress situation, the ongoing production of cortisol can be damaging to the body.
Too much cortisol can reduce your body’s ability to fight infection. This also means your body does not heal as quickly as it should. To add insult to injury, high cortisol levels are also associated with higher fat accumulations around the midsection of the body: belly fat.
Excess stress in general can also lead to health problems such as: high blood pressure, stroke, loss of libido, fatigue, hair loss, chest pain, problems sleeping, ulcers, and fatigue.
So... what do we do about stress? People often say, “I can’t quit my job!” or “I love my kids, but we just get on each other’s nerves,” or “I can’t move closer to work, so I have to commute three hours every day!”
We can’t always avoid the stressors. But there are things we can do to minimize the effects of stress on our bodies, things that don’t involve alcohol, narcotics, tobacco or other drugs, or punching the guy who just stole our parking space in the mall parking lot. I’ll talk about ways to help combat stress in follow-up articles.