Stress Sucks (the Life Out Of You)

Editor’s Note: Thanks and credit goes out to Mark Sisson of Marks Daily Apple for guest writing this article.

How’s your morning been? Did you stumble out of bed sleep-deprived (yet again)? Were you sent into a downward spiral when you discovered you were out of coffee filters? Did your toddler/teenager make getting ready an obstacle course and emotional battlefield? Any brushes with road rage (or just annoying road construction) on the way into work? Forgot the bills on the kitchen table again? Have a new project with your favorite passive-aggressive co-worker? Maybe your spouse called to say the car broke down and needs a new $400 part. Oh, and you have four extra shipments to get out or maybe 6 phone calls and 32 emails to read and return before lunch. Scratch that. Before an unscheduled meeting your supervisor just called. And don’t forget the dog’s vet appointment, your mother’s birthday dinner, and your son’s soccer game.

Forget an easy button. How about simple “pause”?
I hope I didn’t strike too deep a chord there (no one in tears, fits or sudden search for the Tums). But the point is unfortunately all too familiar these days. Although our scruffy primal ancestors lived short and brutish lives, at least they didn’t have to battle the freeway, spend all weekend on house repairs and lawn mowing, or feverishly answer to the incessant buzz of a Blackberry. Some days that “Survivorman” show on the Discovery Channel looks like a pretty good career option. (O.K., I admit that some of us would almost kill for that job.)

Modern life is stressful, no doubt. It’s so rampant, so accepted even, that’s it’s become a kind of cultural narrative in our society. Some of us shake our heads but resign ourselves. Others commit themselves (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to finding a way off the hamster wheel. A brash few relish the pressure and even battle for bragging rights.

However we feel about it, the fact is we’re all paying a physical price for it.

You know what it feels like, don’t you? That rising, heavy feeling in your chest, the tension in your throat, the pressure at your temples, the draining sensation in your legs, the knots in the stomach, nervous fidgetiness, heightened senses, swirling thoughts, racing heart, shallow breath, short-circuiting brain. (Step back from the screen and breathe if you need to….)

What’s really going on in there anyway?
“It’s that nasty cortisol culprit, isn’t it?” you ask. In a nutshell, mostly yes. But before we trash cortisol, let’s be fair. We all need cortisol to live and thrive. There is indeed such a thing as insufficient cortisol, and it’s not the fairy tale existence you might think: chronic and debilitating fatigue, muscle weakness, dizziness, nausea and other stomach ailments, extreme weight loss (one hell of a diet). We’ve all heard that cortisol kicks in with our “fight or flight” instinct. But cortisol does more than help us fend off savage beasts that cross our paths. Among other things, it helps regulate blood pressure, direct energy use, and adjust neurological and hormonal function.

Where we get into trouble is when that “stress” ‘ fight or flight ‘ switch keeps getting flipped. (And now we find ourselves back in the snarling traffic jam or jaws of the office gossip.) Too much of a “good” thing takes a very negative turn. What goes on in the body during stress response that leaves us feeling so exhausted, frazzled and fried?

When we’re racing to the early morning meeting we know we’re late for, the adrenals start kicking out cortisol. In response, a whole host of complementary and counter reactions occur. Cortisol instigates a flood of glucose from the body’s tissue. Then a flood of insulin is released to modulate the sudden spike in glucose. There’s the surge of epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) and norepinephrine, which then ushers in a rush of adrenocorticotropic hormone. The body, sensing a physical emergency, shuts down the immune system, reduces blood flow to the skin, halts or downgrades functions related to reproduction and basic growth and repair. Even after you’ve made it to the meeting, your body is still trying to come down from all the bodily bedlam.

If only these responses were as rare as our bodies evolved for them to be. Instead, our modern helter-skelter existence triggers this turmoil on a regular basis. What comes of being subject to this process over and over ‘ chronic stress, as we call it? The constant release of cortisol and its correlating chain of events eventually compromise the normal function of many physiological systems and the balance of hormones in the body. Chronic stress can weaken immune function (Wonder why you can’t shake that cold?), impair digestion, compromise fertility and sexual functioning, increase the risk of insulin resistance, and reduce memory function. (Hmmm. We don’t have problems with hypothyroidism, adrenal exhaustion, diabetes, and GERD in this country, do we?) Severe ongoing stress can even compromise the blood-brain barrier, which is responsible for protecting the brain from the most damaging effects of drugs and toxins.

Over time, chronic stress can seriously impact overall health.
Research shows that chronic stress is linked to “accelerated aging at the cellular level, shortened telomeres, low telomerase activity, decreased anti-oxidant capacity, increased oxidative stress” and “increased vulnerability to a variety of disease states.”

So, short of quitting our jobs and moving to a deserted island, what can we do?

What would you say if I told you that you have the ability to not only relieve stress in the moment but to actually change gene expression related to physiological stress response? It’s all about inducing, coaxing, eliciting, soliciting the body’s relaxation response (polar opposite to the mayhem described earlier). Collaborative research at the Genomics Center of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital has illuminated a new connection between the relaxation response and genetic expression related to stress.

The relaxation response is a state of “deep rest” that in the moment results in “decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress.” With regular stimulation of the relaxation response (RR) through practices like meditation come benefits such as decreased blood pressure, lower stress response, relief or reduction in chronic pain, stronger immune function, enhanced concentration, improved sleep quality, and more. Harnessing RR, the study’s authors point out, has been “clinically effective” in treating physical symptoms of cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions, chronic pain, and autoimmune dysfunction. The current study showed that subjects who regularly practiced an RR-eliciting activity (such as meditation) exhibited changes in gene expression patterns related to “inflammation, programmed cell death and how the body handles free radicals.”

The fact is, you don’t need to drop out of modern society, don a burlap robe, and live in a cave chanting all day to see real benefits. Any mind-body activity that elicits the RR can influence genetic expression. Some ideas? The researchers of this study highlight a few: transcendental meditation, Qi Gong, “repetitive prayer, yoga, Tai Chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, [and] guided imagery.”

Other ideas for less serious, more momentary (but still effective) stress relief (besides your worn out stress balls and that punching bag you have hidden in the corner of your garage)? Laughter yoga (No, I didn’t make this up) has been shown to induce the positive physiological changes of more, uh, “solemn” meditation forms. The yukking it up workout boasts some 5000 clubs in over 50 countries. Actually, just bringing humor to a stressful situation can help. “Anticipating” laughter was enough to reduce subjects’ stress-related hormones in one study.

Want more?
Perhaps sleep deprivation has you starting the day off on the wrong foot. It turns out just the smell of coffee actually prompts gene activity related to stress reduction. (This explains a lot, don’t you think?)

Finally, have a big presentation coming up at work? A 2006 study showed that sex decreased the stress and anxiety felt by subjects prior to public speaking.

On that note, I’ll leave you to your own assessment and contemplation (or maybe just imagination). But as for the impact of stress, sometimes when it comes to health it’s not just what you take on and take in but what you do to tune out.

Photos courtesy of: senbei, mortonfox, and cwgoodroe.

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