How can we Rewire our Response to Stress?
Everything is connected to everything…
The longer I practice medicine the more I see that chronic stress has to be one of the major contributors to illness and disease. Disease literally means “dis – ease”, not at ease. Disease is a result of imbalances in our core functioning systems. Our bodies are always trying to maintain this dynamic balance in every cell – this is called homeostasis.
Stress is the physiological response to the perception of a real or imagined threat to your body or self. The key point here is perception. An external event is not necessarily inherently stressful – it is how we interpret the signals and how it is processed in our mind and translated into our body. The threat could be real (biking accident) but it could be imagined (an assumption that someone was mad at us). In either case – if we perceive the event as stressful, a cascade of patterned responses ensues. Adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones are released from your brain and permeate every cell in your body. Every cell has receptors for these powerful chemical messengers (hormones). When you “feel” stressed, your cells feel this stress. When you feel joy, your cells feel joy so to speak. The stress response activates the sympathetic response (flight or fright) of the autonomic nervous system causing your heart rate, blood pressure to go up, blood more sticky, increases your blood sugar levels to prepare you for emergency action. This is the right response if there is an acute stressful event that requires you to take action (run away from the saber tooth tiger). However, if we are chronically stressed, this adaptive stress response becomes maladaptive and it causes all kinds of problems on the body. Stress has been identified as a major contributor of many chronic diseases – heart disease, high blood dress, thyroid dysfunction, mood disorders etc.
Prolonged stress causes chronic activation of this stress response and at some point – your systems begin to get depleted. The whole neuro-endocrine axis (hypothalamic, pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, gonads) can go out of balance -dysregulated. Higher levels of cortisol signal your metabolism to be in an emergency mode and reduces your ability to burn fat, suppresses immune system in the long term, can cause leaky gut – which in turn can over activate immune system potentially leading to allergies, auto-immunity, causes sex hormone, thyroid imbalances as well as depression and anxiety.
This is why it is vitally important that we become aware and mindful of how stress is affecting us. You can have the perfect diet, workout everyday but without addressing how you deal with stress, much of the other good stuff can get cancelled out.
We are an incredibly complex and resilient organism. It never ceases to amaze me, how much stress, trauma and illness the body can handle, heal and triumph from. We need to pay attention to what our body is saying to us. The body communicates to us through symptoms. What is our body trying to say to us? It is telling us to slow down, to quit that job that we know we should have done long ago but can’t quite make ourselves do it. The body will say “No’—if we can’t say “No. Every symptom or illness should prompt an inquiry and reflection upon what is going on in our lives.
We are learning more and more that our choices we make each and every day contribute to our overall resilience to stress, dysfunction and illness. Nourishing our bodies with nutrient dense, whole foods provide us with all the co-factors and molecules to ensure our systems are running well and have extra capacity. Keeping our bodies strong, flexible, supple ensures that energy is flowing freely through our systems and stress is not getting trapped. Ensuring consistent, restorative sleep is vital. Learning how to breath – deeply and slowly have profound effects on our stress response. Do Yoga!
Understand our thinking patterns and begin to be aware of how we often make erroneous assumptions about situations and how this causes us stress.
Once we become more conscious and mindful about our perception and responses, we can then begin to re-pattern and re-wire how we respond.
Resilience is about having extra functional capacity so that we can handle increased stress without losing function. We can all live healthy, happier lives once we begin to understand and shift how we perceive and respond to stress
Dr. Lawrence Cheng