No matter how many times a day we meditate or how many yoga classes we take, stress is something that we all experience on a daily basis.
Stress and feeling stressed are totally normal.
Our body is naturally wired to react to changes that occur in our environment.
It’s a survival mechanism that involves all systems and organs in the body. The adrenal glands, the brain, the heart, and the nervous system are all involved in helping us to react and adapt to our environment.
If we weren’t able to adapt to our environment, we wouldn’t be here!
Take, for example, our ancestors who lived on the Earth before there were houses and zoos. They braved the elements in whatever shelters they could find or design and lived with nature, which meant occasional run-ins with predatory animals, like lions and bears.
When being chased by these animals, stress and their response to it is what helped them to survive.
The stress of being chased triggered the activation of their sympathetic nervous system, causing blood flow to increase in the brain, heart, and muscles, so they could take flight and run away from danger.
That said, in modern day society, most of us aren’t being chased by lions and bears. Instead, we’re stressed by work, family, and other societal pressures. So you’re probably wondering if our modern day stress is the same as the stressors of old – is there such a thing as good stress and bad stress?
Good Stress vs Bad Stress
First, let’s talk about the positive benefits of stress. The most important being heart rate variability.
Our natural stress response causes hormone fluctuations:
- adrenaline and cortisol increase
- levels of epinephrine and norepinephrine also rise
When these fluctuations occur occasionally, they are actually good for the heart, providing it with exercise and practice should a more serious situation arise in which a quick response is necessary.
So occasional stress is not a bad thing.
Stress becomes bad stress when it’s chronic and ongoing. In these instances, our bodies don’t have the time and space needed to return to homeostasis.
If we were being chased by a lion or bear, we would run away to a safe space and once the threat was gone our hormone levels and blood flow would return to normal, and our parasympathetic nervous system could take over for a time to allow for rest and relaxation.
Impact of stress on the Body
When the stress we experience is chronic and ongoing, this back and forth between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t occur, which can lead to negative health outcomes like:
- Heart disease
- Autoimmune Disorders
- Weight gain, especially belly fat
- Digestive issues, like irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut
- Anxiety and Depression
- Lower libido
As you can see chronic stress can have the same effect on your body over time as overconsumption of processed foods.
I see this on a regular basis on my practice – patients who are under chronic stress have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight and also have high rates of autoimmune diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s.
At Least 40% of my patients have Hashimoto’s.
The reason this percentage is so high is that when we are chronically stressed with high cortisol levels, our bodies produce more cytokines – a large group of proteins, peptides, or glycoproteins that are secreted by specific immune cells. They regulate immunity and inflammation. Overproduction of these can impair immune function and increase inflammation in the body, making one more susceptible to autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s.
Stress can also increase glucose levels.
High cortisol causes insulin levels to become elevated, which over time cause insulin resistance. if insulin cannot be processed in the body, diabetes develops.
I regularly see patients with diabetes who are doing everything right, eating well and exercising but are still having trouble managing their glucose levels. In these instances, it is usually stress that is keeping them from being well.
Additionally, chronic stress contributes to premature aging.
This most often manifests as:
- Premature greying of the hair
- Decreased skin elasticity
Impact of Stress on the Mind and Spirit
As I mentioned earlier in this blog post, stress affects every system of the body. It contributes to a host of diseases and disorders, but also impairs us mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Chronic stress impairs our ability to be fully present in the moment and makes us more prone to living in the future as our body and mind are anticipating the next threat. This can cause or contribute to feelings of anxiety or anxiousness. The impending sense of danger and ongoing stress can also lead to feelings of hopelessness or depression. These feelings and conditions can severely impact your quality of life, making it more difficult to relax and enjoy the positive aspects of life.
Chronic stress causes us to be hyper-focused on one area or aspect of life – running away from the lion or bear, for instance. In this state, we miss the details of life that you might be able to take in if you were more relaxed, like hearing the birds chirping, laughing with family and friends, and giving or receiving love.
There’s no space to reflect and cultivate our spiritual health, which decreases our capacity for kindness and compassion. It’s also harder for us to sit still to meditate and really focus on our spiritual health and healing, which is an essential component of wellness.
Chronic, or bad, stress can impact every aspect of our lives – body, mind, and spirit.
My hope is that you’ll use this information as well as the stress management tools I’ll be sharing in the next blog post of this series to begin to create changes in your life if this is an issue for you.