Are you on the highway to hell...?Chronic Stress
Before we begin...
Do you remember me telling you in my series on Depression, that prolonged stress would have to be, without a doubt, the biggest driver of affective disorders (depression, anxiety, OCD, insomnia, and addictions)?
In part-one, where I introduced the topic, I mentioned ‘stress’ 5 times.
In part-two, where I further explained the topic, I mentioned ‘stress’ 16 times.
I also said that to give justice to this important subject area (stress!) I would write a specific blog-post in the not-too-distant future.
Well – here it is!
Chronic stress is not only the root of all evil...
it's the route to all evil.
It doesn’t matter what ails you, it’s going to be a challenge to ‘fix’ you if you’re suffering from chronic stress.
I’m always telling my clients that it doesn’t seem to matter what health seminar I attend, what podcast I listen to, what research I read, and what I see day to day — everything points to chronic stress being the key cause of anything & everything1.
And, even if chronic stress wasn’t the root cause of your health condition, if it’s in the mix, then unfortunately it’s the root cause of your inability to recover.
The only thing we need to fight or flee from these days is chronic stress.
Zone out your stress
When it comes to stress, you’re either stressed or you’re not stressed.
(There are no in-betweens).
As far as your autonomic nervous system is concerned, you can only be in one of two modes:
Fight or Flight
Resting, Digesting, and Breeding.
I would strongly recommend that you do everything humanly possible to spend the majority of your time in the second mode.
We now live in a perpetual state of psychological stress.
Or, as I like to term it, 'Fright' mode.
Getting into the details
FIGHT OR FLIGHT MODE
This is the arm of the Autonomic Nervous System technically known as the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).
This response prepares the body for intense physical activity — to react or to retreat. It shunts blood primarily to our heart, lungs, brain and skeletal muscles.
RESTING, DIGESTING, AND BREEDING MODE
This is the arm of the autonomic nervous system technically known as the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
This response has almost the exact opposite effect as your SNS, as it relaxes the body. It slows the heart rate, increases intestinal and glandular activity, and relaxes the sphincter muscles.
It's a losing battle
The Fight or Flight response (a quick & intense burst of stress) is incredibly useful when faced with a predator. Fight or Flight prepares the body for intense physical activity.
However, we were not designed to incur the chronic (ongoing) psychological stress that we face today (in terms of dealing with complex relationships, financial burdens, and workplace pressure). We were only equipped to deal with occasional short bursts of physical stress.
Note: Fight or Flight is also incredibly helpful for recovering from the aftermath of said physical ‘activity’. I’ll explain more about this later on in this post.
We’ve not adjusted adequately or appropriately to our environment or our modern stressors.
Chronic stress (that which is constant & low-grade) cannot help us in any way.
In fact, it can only harm us.
And, it has lead to an increase in inflammatory conditions, autoimmunity issues, and mood disorders (primarily Depression).
The hamster wheel is just spinning way too fast — and we're really struggling to keep up
Unfortunately, the world is progressing at a much faster pace than we are physically able to contend with.
Unlike today, when our stressors are numerous & insidious (insert all your current worries here), our ancestors (‘the cavepersons’) were only designed to respond to one stressor: The near death experience (which could result from a physical trauma or acute infection).
Exposure to this stressor activated our Fight or Flight response, enabling us to scrap-it-out or to high-tail it out of there… It also activated a complex inflammatory network to ‘nurse’ us back to health (assuming we survived the initial assault).
Note: This inflammatory network provided antimicrobial assistance in infections and healed our wounds following physical traumas.
Another indirect consequence of this inflammatory network was to make us feel miserable and therefore compelled us to withdraw from our tribal members during an infection. This isolation would ensure an infectious disease wouldn’t spread among them.
Back then, all of this was a very intense but also short-lived response, cleverly designed to ensure a long-lived species!
But that was then and this is now. (Fast-forward to 2018.)
Let’s see how the ‘Fight or Flight’ mode is working for us now.
We're primitive beings in a modern world.
We respond better to real stressors. I propose we bring-back saber tooth tigers and make antibiotics extinct.
We just don't know how to respond to stress appropriately anymore
Unfortunately, our stress response still works in the same basic way, it’s just now activated by different stressors, and is therefore operating on overdrive.
Therefore, when you are chronically psychologically stressed:
01—Your Fight or Flight response is activated
You constantly feel like you have to watch your back — that you feel like you just can’t relax… because essentially your ‘alarm-bells’ are constantly going off.
This response is essentially like ‘crying wolf’ to your body… Because nowadays (most of the time) there isn’t anything to fight or flee from — well, no large carnivores anyway!
02—Your 'inflammation network' is activated
This chronic low grade inflammation activates your immune system.
Again, this is essentially like ‘crying-wolf’ — because there is no actual physical threat or infectious disease that you have to equip yourself for.
Note: It’s no wonder we have so many people experiencing autoimmunity these days (Hashimoto’s Disease, Graves’Disease, Coeliac Disease). Our immune system, like our Sympathetic Nervous System (our Fight or Flight Response), is in overdrive.
03—And all of this leads to feeling, well — unwell.
Sickness Behaviour is the term now given to the misery you feel & the anti-social activity you display when your inflammatory network has been activated by your Fight or Flight response2.
Note: You only need to look at someone who has been enduring stress for a long period of time, or at someone who has been suffering from pain, inflammation, or a persistent infection for a prolonged period to know that depression goes hand-in-hand with these conditions.
And, you can see from all of this, why using anti-depressant medication (that solely manipulates one or two neurotransmitters in the brain) would provide ineffectual if chronic stress was the root cause of your mental health condition!
So — to recap!
This whole process, your ‘Fight or Flight’, was designed to enable you to:
1) Escape from threat
2) Protect you (and others) from infection, and
3) Mend your wounds
This response was intense, but short-lived, to ensure our long life.
In current times, however, we constantly physically overreact to our psychological stresses. We literally freak-ourselves-out on a daily basis.
And, as dramatic as it may sound – this means that every day, our bodies are constantly reacting as though we may die at any moment…
That’s no way to live.
We create our own stress nowadays — and its not at all self serving.
If you only do this one thing, get your stress response under control
If it’s preventative or to treat a chronic health issue, you can’t go wrong if you make addressing your stress levels your top priority.
Naturopaths + Medical Herbalists have a whole host of recommendations that they can make to help you to stop physically overreacting to psychological stressors.
There are also many other supportive therapies (that were once considered ‘soft science’) that are now proving effective in the treatment of stress. These include such things as taking regular physical activity, developing a supportive social network, and behavioural therapies (mindfulness and meditation)3.
I can’t stress this to you enough — chronic stress is very (very) bad.
Make an appointment with Lisa
Lisa Fitzgibbon is a qualified (2006), experienced and registered Naturopath and Medical Herbalist.
She runs her own private practice OOMPH, in Grey Lynn (Auckland, New Zealand).
Lisa has been involved in the Natural Health industry for 15 years. She draws on her professional training and experience, as well as her own personal experience to bring you realistic, holistic health advice.
Book online to see Lisa at OOMPH.
Lisa sees clients from all over New Zealand either in person or via SKYPE.