What’s your biggest stress trigger? In a recent conversation with friends, a few of us pointed to time pressures. When I have to navigate between several appointments, my kids’ schedules, and attempt to “get stuff done” in between, I feel stressed. Unfortunately, that describes my typical day. So like so many of us, I experience chronic stress.
Unlike situational or social stress, caused by life changes such as divorce, relocation, death of a loved one, chronic stress is ongoing and so can take a real toll on our bodies and minds.
According to the Yale Stress Center, “There is evidence to show that stress and adversity promotes negative thinking, anxiety, bad habits and other poor lifestyle choices by disrupting brain function related to self-control, decision-making, healthy desire and mood. Chronic stress and adversity can also disrupt normal cardiac, metabolic and immune function thereby increasing the risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, infections and some types of cancers.”
How does stress contribute to chronic disease?
For one, stressed-out people tend to slack off on self-care with less sleep, poor food choices, exercising less, and smoking and drinking more. Stress also triggers a flood of hormones into your system, including adrenaline and cortisol that give you that fight-or-flight feeling. But when you’re body is constantly under stress, overexposure to stress hormones (known as allostatic load) leads to an increased risk of all kinds of health problems including depression, digestive problems, heart disease, obesity (more fat around the waist), and memory issues. It’s also been linked to aging, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.
Our bodies own stress countering hormone – Oxytocin
Stanford health psychologist, and the speaker in the excellent TED talk below, Kelly McGonigal, PhD shares an important insights into stress resilience. It’s all reaching out to others for support when we feel stressed. Our bodies make this easier, since the package of stress hormones our bodies release contains the cuddle hormone, oxytocin. McGonigal explains, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.” The stress response, if we heed it’s call, can actually strengthen human connections, compassion and empathy.
McGonigal cites another study that found whether or not a person believes stress is harmful to their bodies makes a marked difference in the way their bodies react. Typically the heart rate goes up and blood vessels constrict, but when one views stress as a helpful biological response, your body readying itself for a challenge, the blood vessels remain open and relaxed, actually mimicking the body’s response to joy and courage. She calls this “the biology of courage.”
Next time you’re late for a meeting, breathe deeply, see your stress as a normal biological response, extend some compassion to yourself, and when it’s appropriate, reach out to others for some strength and caring.
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There’s a lot more great information on the interworking of neurochemicals like oxytocin and cortisol. Explore them with me in my upcoming wellness workshop – Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. Sign up before April 1, 2014 for an early-bird discount!
Carnegie Mellon University (www.cmu.org) Stress Contributes to Range of Chronic Diseases, Carnegie Mellon Psychologist Says (full findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association).
MayoClinic.org. Healthy Lifestyle: Stress Management: Chronic Stress puts your Health at Risk.
The New York Times. The Heavy Cost Of Chronic Stress. December 17, 2002. by Erica Goode.