Friday, October 19, 2018

Chilling Your Stress

One of the unnoticed elephants in the medical exam room is stress.  Hans Selye was one of the early pioneers who studied stress. His animal experiments on stress opened our awareness to all the health problems that stress causes. Since Selye's early work, our pace of life today has only increased.  Stress is an almost guaranteed factor in so many different health concerns including:

  1. Weight gain
  2. High blood pressure
  3. Changes in libido
  4. Frequent colds & infections
  5. Fatigue & the need to nap during the day
  6. Difficulty sleeping through the night
  7. Irregular periods

How Stress Works
The adrenal glands are the hormone center for how your body copes with stress.  Hormonal and nerve communications flow in direct lines between the adrenal glands and your midbrain, primarily the amygdala and hippocampus.  Those brain centers interpret what stimuli are worthy of a fight-flight reaction.  If an accident is impending the midbrain sends an urgent message to the adrenal glands.  The adrenals then immediately send out a wave of fight-flight hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, epinephrine...) which increase your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and reflexes. You are able to respond in time with your foot on the brake and the accident is averted. 

External stimuli are not the only thing that can trigger a fight-flight reaction.  One of the most common stimuli is what we trigger within ourselves -- our thoughts.  Negative thinking, bad attitudes, and worrying trigger cortisol and other adrenal hormones.  If you're the type of person who can find something wrong with everything and you complain a lot - all that irritable energy feeds back into the hippocampus and amygdala like that deafening shrill noise when microphones feedback. In the words of Bob Newhart in one of my favorite scenes where he is counseling someone, "Stop it!"  Complaining and fretting get you absolutely nothing (but more of the above symptoms) and it's simply a useless behavior you've been taught and it's kept going by your sheer repetition.

Cooling the Stress Response

  1. Think of all the calming things you can imagine.  Create a list of all the practical ones that you can pull up and practice on regular basis.  The more you practice and experience calmness, the more you can call on that feeling to manifest itself in stressful moments.  Perhaps people reading this post could comment on a few of their favorite calming activities.
  2. Are you getting enough sleep?  Admittedly, stress can create havoc for your sleep, but there's a stress triangle that you have more influence over than you might think.  The three sides of that triangle are: a) bedtime routine, b) thought management, and c) sleep aids.  Under bedtime routine: send the signal to your body and brain that it's time to sleep through keeping the same time for bed and doing the same getting ready for bed routine.  Thought management means putting things that your brain is working on aside at least an hour before bedtime.  Avoid things that will get your thinking stirred up. Begin a regular 10 minute meditation time.  Under sleep aids include room temperature and bedding.  There are a lot of calming herbs that aid sleep including valerian, skullcap, passion flower, and lavender.
  3. Tire your body out through exercise, but don't save it until bedtime. Exercise can mean simply brisk 30 minute walks, or full-on workouts at a gym.  Interestingly, exercise seems to encourage your brain to move its stressors to your muscles, which then burn that energy during your walk/workout. 
  4. See a naturopathic physician or herbalist for "adaptagenic" herbs for the adrenals.  Limit caffeine intake beyond the early afternoon.
In Conclusion:
Because there are so many ways that we are exposed to stress in busy daily lives, making stress management a routine lifestyle practice is the way toward preserving your health and longevity.