What exactly is this thing we call Stress? We feel stressed, we are stressed, we stress about things, people, circumstances, life. Is Stress an emotion? Is it just something we all feel from time to time? It’s time to set the record straight on stress. Why? Because stress is a major underlying factor in many cases of lifestyle disease manifestation.
What is Stress:
Stress is not simply an emotion. Stress is an innate physiological response to any kind of change in life. This response is known as the ‘Stress Response” and is a biological, hormonal and chemical reaction that occurs in our Autonomic Nervous System. The ANS is the nervous system we don’t have to think about. We are mostly unaware of it functioning. The ANS regulates your breathing, heart, blood vessels, stomach, intestine, liver, kidneys, bladder, genitals, smooth muscle tissue, your lungs, your sweat, salivary and digestive glands.
The ANS consists of 2 main divisions or parts. One part is the Sympathetic Nervous System while the other is the Parasympathetic Nervous System. These two divisions counteract each other, with one side firing things up in our bodies (Sympathetic) and the other side calming things down (the Parasympathetic).
Stress can come in many forms. You suffer Emotional Stress when you are upset, worried or concerned about something. The Stress Response can be Nutritional if and when you don’t get enough nutrients from fresh foods, fruits, vegetables, water. Physical stressors include lack of sleep, too little or too much exercise, pregnancy, illness. Environmental stressors can be things like noise, air pollution, smoke. Social stress can be caused by isolation, loneliness, relationship struggles. All of theses ‘stressors’ can cause the Stress Response to begin.
It’s all about the Tiger:
The Stress Response happens when the Sympathetic Nervous System is fired up. The Stress Response is also known as the “Fight or Flight’ response. It is our innate survival mechanism to help us adapt to a change or a threat. Think about it as our ancient way of running away from a tiger. In order to get away from that tiger (fast), certain things need to happen in our bodies. We need energy to run. A cascade of hormones – cortisol and adrenaline, are released that allow our bodies to tap energy sources to help us run fast. Blood sugar levels are increased and blood fats- cholesterol and triglycerides are dumped into our blood stream to give us quick sources of fuel. Our Immune function goes on red alert- firing up fighter cells into the blood stream to ward off infections (from that tiger bite or brawl). Inflammatory response is ignited as well in order to initiate quick healing from any wound. Our digestive system shuts down and blood is diverted from the digestive system in order to be used in our large muscle groups to run (away from that tiger). Reproduction organs shut down as well. Our skin pores close up and our blood platelets thicken so that in the event that tiger bites us we don’t bleed out before we reach the safety of our cave. Our respiration and blood pressure increase; our pupil dilate to take in peripheral dangers. All of these things happen in the body in an instantaneous way to help up remove ourselves from the danger.
The Disease Connection:
Think about it- this innate Stress Response increases your blood sugar, quickly increases the dumping of blood fats in the form of cholesterol and triglycerides into the blood stream, thickens blood with sticky platelet and enhances blood clotting ability to ensure your blood is nice and thick and sticky so it can clot up quickly, immune function is suppressed and inflammation is increased, your digestion is shut down (and hence your ability to absorb nutrients from the food you eat) and even your reproductive organs are shut down.
It is easy to connect the dots and see how the Stress Response, if chronically fired up, can lead to our modern- day Heart Disease, High Blood Pressure, Diabetes, Inflammation, and Digestive issues as well as understand the link of stress to infertility and immune function.
When it’s not about the Tiger:
The Stress Response is designed in our bodies to be a SHORT-TERM reaction to get us back to our cave safe and sound. We ran fast to the cave, burned up all that blood sugar and blood fats in the process and our breathing, heart rate, digestive system all go back to normal. We are safe. All is well.
But what happens when there is no tiger? What happens when we have pressing issues with time, money, worries, life, relationships and our brains just won’t stop thinking about it all? The Stress Response still kicks in. That same cascade of higher blood sugar, blood pressure, blood fats and digestive disfunction still happens even if you are just ‘thinking’ about things that worry or concern you. This is the Mind-Body Connection at work. You don’t have to be staring that tiger in the eyes. You could just be thinking about that tiger (aka worry, concern, problem) and your Stress Response System turns on.
And that’s our big problem with modern world stressors. We don’t run away and get safe and calm down from our worries and concerns. We ruminate, keep them going in our heads day and night. We don’t eat right or well, or sleep or exercise enough. We live in a world where we are bombarded with stressors from every angle. Our Stress Response begins to be turned on chronically. And the threat we perceive is not a tiger so we aren’t using up all those blood fats and glucose in our bloodstream to run away. It just stays there, and the system starts to go awry because our body has no way to dispose of these extra energy sources. There are 4X’s more cortisol receptors in the abdominal area than anywhere else in the body. The belly area is cortisol’s ‘go to’ place to store excess energy as fat cells. Our digestion is constantly in a struggle to digest our foods and our ability to absorb and nourish our bodies is compromised. Inflammation is chronically turned up.
One of the reasons moderate exercise is a great stress reducer is because we use the extra fats and sugar in our blood as an energy resource to fuel the workout.
The Relaxation Response
Here’s the good news. The Stress Response can be turned off by its counter- part, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (aka: The Relaxation Response). The two systems cannot operate at the same time; they mutually suppress one another so when the Relaxation Response is flipped on, the Stress Response shuts off.
How do you turn on The Relaxation Response? It takes practice! The Relaxation Response is NOT brought on by the normal things people state as ways to relax. You don’t bring it on by watching TV with a beer or glass of wine. You don’t bring it on by hanging out with friends. You don’t bring it on by going to a nice restaurant and ordering food so you don’t have to cook. It is the body’s naturally imbued response that shuts down the Stress Response, and you need to bring it on in certain ways to make it work.
Here are some ways to turn on the Relaxation Response.
1. Deep belly breathing for 20 -30 minutes (Dr. Herbert Benson)
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position and Close your eyes.
- Deeply relax all your muscles, beginning at your feet and progressing up to your face. Keep them relaxed. [Relax your tongue—and thoughts will cease.]
- Breathe through your nose. Become aware of your breathing. As you breathe out, say the word “one”* silently to yourself. For example, breathe in, and then out, and say “one”*, in and out, and repeat “one.”* Breathe easily and naturally. (note- you may choose any word but not one with powerful emotional ties or meaning)
- Continue for 10 to 20 minutes. You may open your eyes to check the time, but do not use an alarm. When you finish, sit quietly for several minutes, at first with your eyes closed and later with your eyes opened. Do not stand up for a few minutes.
- Do not worry about whether you are successful in achieving a deep level of relaxation. Maintain a passive attitude and permit relaxation to occur at its own pace.
- When distracting thoughts occur, try to ignore them by not dwelling upon them and return to repeating “one.”*
- With practice, the response should come with little effort. Practice the technique once or twice daily, but not within two hours after any meal.
2. The Quieting Response. (Dr. Charles Stroebel) This is a quick 6 second practice that works “in the moment” and is a tool you can use that quickly brings on the Relaxation Response. It uses visualization and deep breathing
- First “smile inwardly” with your eyes and mouth and then slowly release the tension in your tense shoulders.
- Imagine breathing holes in the bottom of your feet. As you take a deep breath in, visualize and imagine warm fresh air flowing in through these holes and moving slowly up your legs, through your abdomen and filling your lungs.
- Go through all your big muscle groups and release the tension sequentially as the hot air moves through them up your body and then exhale and reverse the visualization so that you “see” the warm air going back out through those same holes in your feet.
- Repeat throughout the day whenever you need to feel calm and relaxed.
Ask your Rolling Strong Coach for help if you find this difficult. Try to set time aside each day to do either of these (or both) exercises. Shutting off stress brings your body back into homeostasis- turning OFF that Stress Response.
By: Cindy Luisi, WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach
Current Directions in Stress and Human Immune Function https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/
The Relaxation Response by Dr. Herbert Benson
The Quieting Reflex by Dr. Charles Stroebel