Stress and how it uniquely impacts our health

Stress and how it uniquely impacts our health
Stress can be our constant evil sidekick. We don’t realize it’s with us day in and day out. Sometimes, we even crave stress. Stress creates a natural high that you constantly seek. And when you do make a point to take ten minutes out to sit still, but your mind is planning, worrying or ruminating.

Stress can be good. It gears our body up for a challenge. Our eyes dilate, our muscles tense up, our hearts beat faster while our body is preparing to “fight” or “take flight”. We feel focused and we achieve our goals.

On the flip side is chronic stress. This is when our body is constantly in a stressed state. You only realize it has continuously hit you until you’re crying after a yoga class or snapping at a colleague.

This is why stress is such an important topic – it’s effects are social, biological, psychological and psychological. We know that stress happens when life’s demands exceed your capacity to deal with them.

Life’s demands can be emotional, physical or psychological. There is a misalignment, and it’s not just “in our head”.

There is research to show that stress can move from our thoughts to the brain, from the brain to the gut and back up to the brain again. This is demonstrated with experimental evidence that stomach ulcers could be caused by stress.

Stress is unique. You can think about something stressful, like your financial security, and it will have the same hormonal impact on you as running away from a lion did for your ancestors. That’s how connected stress is with your brain and body.

If you believe in it, it’s real

In a recent review by Ray et al, they refer to this definition of stress:

More modern concepts view stress as a consciously or unconsciously sensed threat to homeostasis, in which the response has a degree of specificity, depending among other things, on the particular challenge to homeostasis, the organism’s perception of the stressor and the perceived ability to cope with it.

This definition shows how just thinking about stressful events, and how you think you’ll be able to deal with the stress, will have a physiological response.

Take, for example, a situation that happened to a friend of mine, Laura.

Laura was going on a hike in a new nature reserve. She noticed people walking very close to her and eyeing out her bag. Nobody smiled or greeted her. She began to feel slightly nervous and became aware of her surroundings. Her mouth went dry, her heart started pounding, her breath quickened and she started thinking about all the terrible things that could happen.

Then, a friend of hers came around the corner and started greeting the strange group of people. Lo and behold, they weren’t strange at all, they seemed to be mutual friends! She immediately relaxed and laughed at her initial concerns.
The only thing that changed for Laura, was her perception of the group of people. However, her body responded immediately with a stress response.

How often do you think your body delivers a stress response when there is no imminent danger?

Can stress make you sick?
What happens when our bodies are overloaded with stress hormones and inflammation? On and on it goes, and you find yourself in a situation of chronic stress. What next? Modern disease happens. Depression and anxiety, heart disease, obesity, insomnia, gut disorders and auto-immune conditions and nearly every chronic, modern health problem is directly related to the changes in our body caused by stress.

Even stress perception can make you sick. Cohen et al., did a study where they asked, “In general, how would you rate your health?” Each person completed questionnaires that assessed self-rated health. They were then exposed to a common cold virus and monitored for five days. It was found that negative perception led to the experience of common cold symptoms regardless of whether the immune system was reacting. In other words, if someone had a good health perception and experienced an immune response after getting exposed, they did not get sick. This shows us that there is an association between our thoughts and emotions and our body’s expression of our immune response.

What now?
If stress is what happens when life’s demands exceed our capacity to deal with them, then we have two choices. The first choice is to reduce the demands. That’s not practical for most people – modern day life often doesn’t allow it. The second is to increase our ability to deal with our everyday stresses.