We've all heard about it, and most of us just sweep it under the rug. Sure, we all intrinsically know it's "bad" for us, and it may cause harm, but what does that actually mean? It's more than "just in your head", your body thinks it's real and dangerous.
Why is stress so bad for us, and can conquering this undefined bodily reaction be the answer to all of our health woes? It's in my opinion, and many other health professionals, that current day stressors are some of the leading causes of countless chronic diseases today.
It's More Than The Cause Of Your Tension Headache
In an effort to eloquently describe stress, I've decided to quote the brilliant doctor, Lisa Rankin, M.D. from her book "Mind Over Medicine". Sometimes the best words are someone elses words.
"So how exactly does a thought or feeling transalte into physical effects all over the body? You start with a thought or feeling---take fear, for example. A doctor tells you that you have only three months to live. Or someone injects you with something they warn will have unpleasant side effects. Or maybe it's not even that dramatic. Maybe you're afraid your wife is going to leave you or your boss is going to fire you or you won't be able to pay the bills or your dream won't come true or everybody will reject you because you're unlovable.
Your thoughts are powerful. Your conscious mind---which resides in the forebrain---knows you're frightened. But your lizard brain--the area near your brainstem that houses the hypothalamus---can't tell the difference between an abstract fear thought and a real live survival threat. Your lizard brain thinks you're about to die, and this stimulates the stress response, setting off the fight-or-flight mechanisms, activating the HPA axis, flipping on the sympathetic nervous system, shutting down your immune system, and getting you ready to run away from danger.
When your body is in the middle of a stress response, your body's self-maintenance and self-repair functions come to a screeching halt. These stress responses were meant to be triggered only very rarely. The healthy body is supposed to be in a relaxed state of physiological rest most of the time. If you're a caveman living in a happy tribe of people, you would only be expected to run from a cave bear once in a blue moon. The rest of the time, you'd be gathering berries, hanging around the campfire, and making little cavebabies.
Of course, our caveman ancestors didn't live very long because of real and present dangers they faced every day, dangers we're largely protected from because of modern luxuries like ample shelter and food. But modern life has its own perils. The stressors of daily life--things like loneliness, unhappy relationships, work stress, financial stress, anxiety, and depression--result in forebrain thoughts and feelings that repetitively trigger the hypothalamus to elicit stress responses. The mind knows it's just a feeling, but the lizard brain thinks you're under attack.
Feelings like fear, axiety, anger, frustration, resentment, and other negative emotions trigger the HPA axis. Whether or not your body is in danger, your mind believes you are, so your hypothalamus is activated and releases corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) into the nervous system. CRF responds by stimulating the pituitary gland, causing it to secrete prolactin, growth hormone, and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which stimulate the adrenal gland and cause it to release cortisol, which in turn is responsible for helping the body maintain homeostasis when the brain signals a threat.
When the hypothalamus is activated, it also turns on the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response), causing the adrenal glands to release epinephrine and norepinephrine, which increase pulse and blood pressure and affect other physiological responses. The secretion of these hormones leads to a variety of metabolic changes all over the body.
Basically, your body ignores sleeping, digesting, and reproducing, and instead focuses on running, breathing, thinking, and delivering oxygen and energy in order to keep you safe. When your body is facing a physical threat, these changes help you fight or flee the threat. But when the threat exists only in your mind, the body doesn't realize that there is no bodily threat, and over time, when this stress response is repetitively triggered, nature's biological response winds up actually doing more harm than good.
As a result, the body can't relax and repair what inevitably gets ill if not maintained by self-repair mechanisms. Organs get damaged. The cancer cells we naturally make every day, which usually get blasted away by the immune system, are allowed to proliferate. The effects of chronic wear and tear on the human body take their toll, and we wind up sick."
It's Not all Grim
The bodies we inhabit are intrinsically good at learning how to relax, as we are meant to be throughout most the day. With breathing techniques, meditation, healthy relationships, love, intimacy, connection, purpose, good nutrition, and other self-care modalities, we are able to counteract this detrimental chronic stress response.
Be a radical self healer, take care of your needs. Don't fear getting that massage, or making that appointment with the acupuncturist, or working on your relationships. Hate your job? It's literally killing you. Make yourself a priority, because in the end, if you don't help yourself, you can't help others.
If you don't find ways to manage the stress, the stress will find ways to manage you.