Stress: The Invisible Killer

Stress is a silent killer.

Stress is a silent killer.

Stress is part of our daily lives, but we don’t always realize that we’re under stress and the damage it is doing to our bodies and minds. Our world is very stimulating and keeps us in a constant low-grade state of fight or flight. Cortisol, our primary stress hormone, affects metabolism, immune response, blood pressure, inflammation, nervous system activation, and much more. Did you know that stress causes or worsens almost 95% of illnesses, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even cancer?

When we get sick, it means that something is out of balance and this is our body’s way to make us aware of it. For instance, when we get a cold, our body is trying to tell us that our immune system is compromised and we need rest to recover. The problem with constant stress and the burnout that comes from it is that we can disguise the symptoms by drinking coffee or taking in sugary foods and drinks to help us stay awake and keep going. This will eventually lead to a dangerous level of burnout, and your body or mind will likely suffer.

How Does the Nervous System Work?

Our nervous system has two sides: the sympathetic nervous system, which is active when we’re in a fight or flight state, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which is active when we’re in the rest and digest state.

Fight or Flight

When we are in danger or we’re being attacked, physically or emotionally, the fight or flight response will kick in. Millennia ago, when a saber-toothed tiger chased the caveman, this fight or flight response came in very handy to get him out of the dangerous situation.

Image of a cheetah chasing a gazelle

Fight or flight is good when needed, but is unsustainable long-term.

When the fight or flight response kicks in, we experience a surge of adrenaline: our heart rate goes up, muscles tighten, blood pressure increases, and breathing becomes shallow. At the same time, our intestinal activity, sexual function, and some of our brain functions, like creativity and critical thinking, shut down temporarily.

Rest and Digest

The opposite happens when we’re in the rest and digest stage, setting recovery in motion: our heart rate slows down, muscles relax, blood pressure decreases, and breathing slows and deepens. Our creativity, critical thinking, intestinal activity, and sexual functions restore.

We go into the rest and digest stage after the danger has passed and we are taking the time to relax completely. Cortisol takes 48 hours to get out of our system, which is why we often feel that we aren’t resting properly for the first few days on holiday.

How the Nervous System Reacts to Our Stresses

The caveman stayed in the fight or flight mode temporarily. Once he got out of danger, he took the time to recover before he went out hunting again. So his stress was short lived.

In modern times, we are in a constant mode of pressure: sitting in traffic, an approaching deadline, or regular difficult meetings or business decisions to make. We are constantly stimulated. Our stress is long term.

We are designed for short term stress, but what was intended to help us stay alive, has turned into a way of living. Instead of running away, we run around. We overcommit. We don’t take enough vacation, we don’t sleep enough, we don’t eat healthily, and we don’t exercise properly.

Picture of a run-down house

Just like a home, our bodies and minds need regular maintenance to keep from falling apart.

Implications of Long Term Stress

Long term stress causes our bodies to break down. When we are in even a mild stress state, our body can’t heal and repair itself as effectively. Over time this can lead to all kinds of mental and physical disorders. In Chinese Medicine, we learn that there needs to be a balance of Yin and Yang in the body. Yang is the active, the movement. Yin is the stillness, the rest. Our modern society is so geared toward action, that we have lost touch with the balancing action of rest and relaxation.

Stress affects the free flow of qi, resulting in the stagnation of qi, excessive internal heat, and poor blood circulation. Extreme and ongoing stress throws off balance in the body and triggers emotional, mental, and physical health problems, such as:

  • Sleep disorders
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Acne
  • Indigestion
  • Hypertension
  • Restlessness
  • Poor or excessive appetite
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Craving for sweets
  • Decreased sexual ability
  • Accelerated aging
  • Impaired memory and learning
  • Inability to think creatively
  • Impaired immune function, causing more colds and flu
  • Increased blood sugar
  • Increased fat around the waist
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Strained relationships, both work and family related
  • Anxiety and depression

How to Manage Stress

Instead of managing stress, we often turn to short term coping mechanisms like overeating, going out for a drink or two, living on coffee, or venting to a friend. If we’re under long term stress, employing short term remedies like these impairs our ability to recognize that we are heading for danger.

Managing stress and resting entirely after each stressful situation has the following benefits:

  • Increased longevity
  • Improved decision-making
  • Increased creativity
  • Increased cognitive flexibility
  • Improved job performance
  • Feeling more enjoyment and fulfillment in life

A quick way to bring your body back into balance while in a stressful situation is deep, diaphragm breathing. When the fight or flight mode wants to kick in, breathing deeply will help you to relax, clear your mind, and enable you to make better decisions. The diaphragm sits below the lungs and above the belly. When we breathe deeply, the diaphragm contracts and slows down the heart rate, brings down breathing, and invokes a feeling of calm.

It’s also a good idea to begin to notice what things amp up your nervous system, and question whether they are good for you. Some obvious culprits are caffeine, sugar (and any kind of stimulant), but also some not so obvious ones like excessive smartphone/computer use, or watching television all the time, especially around this time of year with all the election rhetoric going on. Try turning off devices more often, and generally establishing boundaries around their use. You’ll be surprised how much this helps.

Other ways to relieve stress include regular acupuncture, massage, herbal medicines, and meditation to calm the mind and restore the flow of qi.

Most importantly, listen to your body. If your body tells you that it’s time to slow down, listen! Don’t get stuck on autopilot going from one overstimulating thing to another. Tune into your body, FEEL the emotions and signals from your body that are associated with whatever stressful thing that has happened. Take a nap instead of having another cup of coffee. Take a bath instead of having a cocktail. Or go to bed extra early instead of watching one more thing on Netflix.

Have any good tips that you use to manage stress? I’d love to hear them. And thanks for reading and sharing!

Tags: Acupuncture clinic San Francisco, brake and digest, Chinese herbal medicine clinic, fight or flight, nutrition, nutritional counseling, relieve stress, San Francisco, stress and disease, stress invisible killer, stress management, stress relief, stress silent killer, Timothy Asher,

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