“Stress: What It Is, How It’s Affecting You, and When It Can Be Good! + A Key Tip on Measuring and Tracking Stress Levels!
Growing up, the way we understood stress was this force or element that existed and sort of interfered with how the body should operate or function. The lens I viewed stress through was always a little blurry. It was never quite clear.; It's intangible. I didn't know how it worked, or what it was. But what I did know, what was totally clear about this mysterious thing called stress, was that it is real, and it is harmful to your health. “Stress is a killer,” or “stress is the silent killer.” Maybe you’ve heard this before.
The truth is, not all stress is bad stress, it’s the conditions in which we experience stress that makes stress harmful to both our mental health and our physical health. Society and all its glory and expectations are not an environment that favors self-preservation. The rat race, pressure, deadlines, goals, expectations, unhealthy relationships, abuse (both past and current), not to mention the many insecurities many of us are plagued with, all contribute to the unique human experience that is riddled with chronic stress.
Unlike other species, we experience stress chronically, but like other species, we were not designed to. What would happen to an animal if you frequently stressed it throughout the day? Any animal lover will tell you that animals don’t hold up well in small stressful circumstances (and they’ll let you know it). But, if for some reason it was subjected to a chronic stressful environment, its mental and physical health deteriorates drastically. Is this not the life many of us live today, and have lived for so long? Busy, stretched too thin, overwhelmed, burned-out, beyond tired. We do our jobs under all circumstances, we raise our children under all sorts of conditions. Under-rested and over-caffeinated, we of course are burdened with the desire to remain healthy and fit so we can keep going, adding exercise into our lives (if it wasn’t already) hoping it will be the tool to make us feel invincible. But it doesn’t always do that, does it? And if so, usually not for long - but that’s for another blog.
In this blog we’re going to talk about:
Chronic Stress, the human experience
How Stress is Affecting Your Mental Health
How Stress is Affecting Your Physical Health
When Stress is Good
How To Track and Measure My Stress levels
Stress is a response to something experienced, imagined, or perceived. It’s a response to something disruptive.
Chronic Stress, the human experience:
What I’m proposing to you is that:
- The organs and systems that are responsible for responding are always “on.”
- They shouldn’t be.
- It’s the underlying driving cause of the deterioration of your body and your mind.
It’s important to note here that a response by its very nature comes second.
The experience, image, or perception must have taken place or in this context - is always taking place.
The systems responsible for responding are always receiving something to respond to.
It’s important to identify a few things:
- What is responding?
- What is happening during this response?
- Why is that the response?
It’s a response preparing for one of four things: Fighting, Fleeing, Feeding, and Reproduction.
That would be the Commander In Chief, the Head Honcho, el Capitan, known scientifically as the: primal brain, midBrain, or reptilian brain.
*It’s called the reptilian brain because reptiles are said to only be able to operate from this part of the brain.
This structure is responsible, essentially, for self-preservation, as well as the preservation of its species.
It’s important to note that self-preservation takes priority over species preservation.
With preservation in focus, the midbrain is motivated by need, fear, desire, thoughts, and feelings that facilitate: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and reproduction.
Once this response is triggered, an amazing performance is orchestrated by the brain resulting in a cascade of events through the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) begins, which ultimately results in one of two polar opposite systems kicking into gear. The two antagonistic systems of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) persuade the body and mind.
One is solely committed to the preparation of fighting or fleeing, the other is in complete surrender to resting and digesting.
It’s important to note that these systems can not be up-regulated (turned on) at the same time. It’s impossible. Think of hitting the gas and the brake at the same time in your car. It would be disastrous. There are a lot of safety mechanisms to prevent this from happening within the body. So, whatever influence the sympathetic nervous system has on something (anything), the parasympathetic nervous system has the exact opposite influence.
Diverts blood to muscles
Diverts blood to organs
What’s happening during this response?
Hormones and Neurotransmitters are being released through the nervous system and the endocrine system.
Epinephrine (aka Adrenaline)
Norepinephrine (aka Noradrenaline)
*If they’re released through the endocrine system they’re hormones, but if they’re released through the nervous system, they’re neurotransmitters. The same chemicals have different functions depending on what they’re being released by and what they’re being released to.
These are the chemical messengers that influence various organ activity in a split second. When one of these four responses is triggered it is our SNS that releases both epinephrine and norepinephrine.
Essentially, the message being sent is a systemic message.
And the message is “ALL HANDS ON DECK!”
All of the body's resources are being rerouted and redirected.
Think of the body as a city, and the brain is the governor of that city. The brain is responsible for the overall well-being and state of the body. With this burden of responsibility, the brain is committing resources to various projects within the city (body).
These projects are being prioritized based on what is in the best interest of the whole (self-preservation or species-preservation).
All resources are being prompted and prepared to respond to the project that requires the most urgent attention when we’re in this “Fight or Flight” state. Long-term projects or projects that require a lot of resources, (aka the important projects), are postponed, and major problems arise when these long-term projects are put on hold for extended periods of time.
Some of these projects include things like: digestion, reproduction, and emotional growth.
With this up-regulated SNS your pupils dilate and your focus is heightened. Your heart rate is increasing, and your breathing is heavier. Blood pressure is on the rise to move blood filled with nutrients and oxygen to your skeletal muscle system to give you the most power, strength, and speed possible to respond accordingly.
There is a complete shift. The SNS is firing on all cylinders and the PNS is inactive.
Why is this the response?
Once the SNS is activated these changes are happening for one main reason - out of necessity, or what your brain has imagined or perceived to be a necessity. You see, all of these physiological adaptations are to our advantage in a moment of crisis. The problem for us humans is that our body responds the exact same way even if we’re just thinking about something stressful. Just the thought of something dangerous, scary, frustrating, or exciting, can send our body into overdrive.
The very same responses that would occur if you were ever face-to-face with a bear, happen when we’re racing to get the kids to school on time because we forgot to pack their lunch or didn’t cook their breakfast the way they like it; the very same responses when we’re stressing over bills, or having a disagreement with a loved one. The brain responds as if it is encountering a life-threatening situation, and it happens all day long.
The shift is taking place - the heart rate is on the rise, and the blood is rushing to skeletal muscle - preparing to respond to the stress or perceived threat. It’s prioritizing resources. There is no time or energy to put towards digesting that panini you had at lunch.
This is extremely useful if you are in a life-threatening situation. However, it’s completely unnecessary and, as you would imagine, very harmful to your body if you are continuously subjected to that life-threatening situation.
This sheds light on the impact of the numerous types of abuse different people experience and how it is often the underlying cause of their health and mental health complications/struggles/battles.
The role stress plays in secondary disease and mental health is not a small one. We have grown accustomed to such a high level of stress and we’ve accepted it as a part of our culture, and furthermore, our identity.
It’s who we are: we’re “go-getters” and “hustlers,” but never without a cost.
How stress is affecting your mental health:
Stress affecting our health, in any capacity, has to do with the neurotransmitters and hormones, and what they’re prompting different structures of the body to do - and most importantly, the frequency in which it occurs. It’s the chronic triggering and stimulation of the SNS that results in this overuse and wearing out of different structures - leaving us with the aftermath of injury and disease.
When we’re thinking about mental health complications, two things come to mind—two vile disorders that can render a person incapacitated: anxiety and depression, and for good reason 0 they’re so prevalent.
Depression has been termed, “the common cold of psychopathology.” If that’s so, then anxiety is influenza.
What chronic stress does to a person physiologically is the precursor to both anxiety and depression. It creates an environment ideal for anxiety and depression to exist. The elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, tension, and tautness throughout our body, and the constant flow of stress hormones into the blood wreak havoc on all organs and systems. The mind is not exempt. It now becomes a good ground for anxiety and depression.
How stress is affecting your physical health:
Taking into consideration both acute and long-term physiological adaptations, how stress affects our physical health is extensive, impacting every system, organ, tissue, and cell in the body. Each has mild and severe conditions that accompany them. This section will briefly cover some of the following issues:
- digestive issues (ulcers, diarrhea)
- skeletal muscular issues like trigger points, arthritis, and spinal stenosis
- cardiovascular and respiratory issues like hypertension, shortness of breath, and even panic attacks.
Now knowing that the SNS and PNS have polar opposite functions we can more easily understand that blood supply is heavily impacted by these two systems. When our Fight or Flight nervous system is active blood flow is being directed towards the skeletal muscles, being shunted from the organs, and even being pulled from the organs to supply the skeletal muscle with the resources necessary to act. Often, the abundance of stress hormones being released into the blood can cause diarrhea.
Furthermore, when we live in prolonged periods in this fight or flight state, digestion can be severely impacted. The mucus lining inside the GI tract begins to subside because we don’t spend much time in our PNS (rest and digest) state which would allow for optimal digestion, leaving many people susceptible to ulcers and a number of other digestive issues.
This shift in the ANS increases the activity of the nervous system on skeletal muscle. This, along with the imbalanced blood flow described above, often results in fascial issues like trigger points. The fascia is constantly stressed, taut, and hypertonic, rarely ever getting much of a break. Especially, if like much of the world your sleep and nutrition are suffering. Although trigger points are common, they’re the least of our worries. Prolonged periods of chronic stress results in hypertonic fascia bearing down on the skeletal system contributing to arthritis (degenerative joint disease, DJD), and spinal stenosis.
*Spinal stenosis is the narrowing of the canal within the vertebrae.
It’s this shift that contributes to hypertension, increased stress on the cardiovascular system, and strain on the heart, and drives our respiratory rate up making us more prone to panic attacks.
It’s important to note that much of our lifestyle, as well as our effort in the gym, should be geared around mitigating this stress on our skeletal system, as well as increasing our resilience to stress.
If you’ve made it this far in the blog, good for you! You have a very good grasp on stress and how it impacts us as human beings.
When is stress good?
Simply, stress is good when it is appropriate.
We know not all stress is bad, and we know stress is vital to the optimization of an organism, system, being, or even environment.
Here is what should be clear: stressors need to be appropriate and relative to the organism, system, being, or environment that is experiencing the stress. Whether it’s a cognitive challenge, physical challenge, social challenge, emotional challenge, or anything that is being required of the organism, if it proves to be too much then you will not see the desired change or adaptation that you hoped for within that organism or system. You will see the exact opposite. Instead of adding to the system, the stressor will take away from it. Instead of building, it will break it down.
To make this personal for you, what’s paramount for you is to understand yourself and your current stress levels. You need a way to have insight into that type of information, to measure it, and track it. Then you can begin to implement lifestyle changes in order to mitigate the unnecessary stress that’s being carried around, as well as build resilience to stressors, in order to get the most out of the exposure to what should be a “good stress.”
The most effective way to measure and track this information is through something called Heart Rate Variance (HRV). HRV is a bio-metric that we can now track and measure with apps like Elite HRV. This provides real-time data and insight regarding our Autonomic Nervous System and tells us whether or not we are currently in our SNS or PNS. From here we can begin to implement long-term strategies to benefit our nervous system, as well as utilize the information to act appropriately and provide what the nervous system needs in the present day and moment in time.
- How can you begin to decrease fascial tension in your body?
- What nutritional habits can you implement to create a healthy gut?
- What lifestyle changes do you need to make to have a better handle on your day?
By: Vinny Nuzzo, mr_stress_undone
Integrative Health Coach