Sunday, March 24, 2019
Chronic Stress Kills
written 17 March 2019
published 24 March 2019
Although we live in a complex technological society, our bodies are the product of simpler times. If a hunter gatherer was walking down the path and a mountain lion leaped out of the brush, the fear of being eaten generated a survival response to run away as fast as possible. When a danger is perceived by the amygdala part of the brain, it precipitates a chain of biochemical responses faster than conscious thought. The body is immediately flooded with the adrenaline hormone, which increases blood circulation and breathing rate for better oxygen delivery, and carbohydrate metabolism for access to more energy, preparing the muscles for exertion. This all helps the body run away.
In addition, the body shuts down several energy consuming processes. The frontal cortex is used for complex planning, decision making, and social behavior, none which is needed to just run away. To save energy, blood flow is redirected from the frontal cortex to the hindbrain, to help the body coordination for running. The energy consumptive digestive and immune systems are not needed, so they are shut down as well. This shifting of energy and resources is an appropriate response to the immediate biophysical needs for survival in the moment.
Once the danger has passed, the body returns all the systems to their previous balance of energy and resource distribution. However, there is a disparity in the rate of ramping up and the rate of returning to normal. Obviously, the ramp up has to be very quick in order to successfully deal with an immediate environmental threat, where seconds can be the edge between life and death. The return to normal is much slower, as the emergency conditions might not be gone, so being on alert it prudent. But after some time, the body's balance is restored. This process works well when these emergencies happen at rare intervals. But when another trigger occurs before the body has been able to restore normal equilibrium, the body stays in this alerted condition, risking long term degradation of the entire organism.
This emergency response to an environmental event, can be triggered by a psychologically generated event. For instance, fear your boss is going to fire you can act as a trigger, even if this hasn't actually happened. Our complex society creates these kinds of fear all the time, creating a population that is chronically on alert. Studies with rats kept under constant stress shows long term decline in problem solving capacity, as their fore brain deteriorates. General health, digestion, and immune functions decline as well. Pregnant rats subjected to these conditions give birth to babies that have distorted large hind brains, smaller fore brains, and generally weak digestion and immune systems.
It is easy to see that constant stress is not good for a human society either, where it breeds people with little capacity for complex thinking, poor digestion, and compromised immune protection. Using drugs or alcohol to manage stress may addresses some of the symptoms, but not the underlying condition, and therefore perpetuate a chronic problem. The good news is that the psychological elements of stress can be managed, helping to restore the body to good health. A quick search on the Internet will give you many suggestions.
On the mental level, learn what triggers your body by sitting mediation, and cultivate an aware presence. As a body sensation arises simply notice the response without taking any action. The sensation plays out within 90 seconds or so, and without the mind adding to the response, the body becomes quiet again. This helps de-program the body memory, so that next time the trigger occurs, the body doesn't respond as strongly, and over time, can have no response at all.
On the physical level, eat healthy food and reduce caffeine consumption. Move your body with yoga, exercise, dance, or being in nature. Laugh, listen to music, get a good night's sleep, be aware of breathing deeply, and spend time with a pet, family or friends. At work, periodically take a moment to reflect, prioritize and take responsibility for your choices, deal with issues as they occur, and learn to say no. Consider keeping a journal.
The life you save could be your own!