You’ve been hearing that stress makes you sick. But how can it do that? And what can you do about it?
A stressor is something that triggers your body’s stress response reflex, often called the fight, flight, or freeze reflex. This reflex is designed for short term survival under dangerous circumstances. It is run by the sympathetic side of your autonomic nervous system, which is a fancy way of saying that it is hard-wired into your brain and body. Your fight, flight, freeze response happens automatically and almost instantaneously any time you perceive yourself to be threatened or overwhelmed. It grants you immense amounts of strength and energy to save yourself and loved ones from peril. It is what enables moms to lift cars off of their babies and other superhuman stuff like that. It is so much a part of our hardwiring that even rigorous military and police training cannot always reliably extinguish this reflex in all situations.
This reflex has been extraordinarily successful evolutionarily. So much so that nearly every animal has it (opossums, for example, are vicious fighters but when they sense they can’t win they play dead demonstrating both the fight and the freeze parts of this reflex). Which raises the question, how can something so good for our survival be so bad for us? The answer has to do with how your body manages its finite resources, and matters of degree.
The fight, flight, or freeze reflex was designed for occasional and intermittent use, not for frequent and continuous use. The adrenals, your body’s stress glands, are designed to support you through stress for about three weeks before they start to fatigue. Most of the time, this is long enough for the tiger to wander away or for the neighboring tribe to finish its raid.
But our bodies can’t distinguish the physically demanding threats from the old jungle from the psychologically and emotionally demanding threats from our new jungle of modern life. It still gets us ready to run or fight even though neither response is too helpful in the face of traffic, a deadline at work, or a challenging relationship with your teenage child. To do that, it borrows energy and other resources from wherever it can get them.
Let’s look at what happens in your body under ordinary circumstances and then when you are experiencing your stress response so that you can see what I mean.
When you are sitting at rest, your body is
- Digesting its last meal
- Making new bone and repairing other wear and tear
- Fighting infections and regulating your friendly microbes
- Storing energy for future use
- Preparing to procreate
- Many more activities
When you need to run or fight, most of these processes shut down, if not completely then at least to some degree, because they are not considered to be essential to short term survival. For example:
- Hydrochloric acid and bicarbonate production in the stomach stops
- Digestive enzyme production in the pancreas stops
- Peristalsis in the stomach and small bowel slows way down (in other words, digestion slows way down)
- Peristalsis in the colon often increases, emptying its contents (time to lighten the load for the long run!)
- Immune function may increase or decrease, depending upon circumstances
- Cellular repair decreases
- Cognitive thinking often switches to automatic or reactive thinking
- Hormone levels change, ovaries often turn off or go out of regulation
Energy is shifted to the systems your body uses first when running or fighting. Priorities include:
- Pumping sugar into the blood (to give you the energy you need for increased activity)
- Raising heart rate and blood pressure (to get that energy where it needs to go to be used)
- Tightening muscles (so that they are prepared for action)
- Heightening senses and perceptions (so you see where to direct that action)
All of this is great when facing an acute stressor like a tiger is hunting you or when someone is following you in the dark. However, when the stress response is triggered time after time, day after day, your body’s infrastructure starts to suffer. Remember I said this reflex is designed for infrequent and acute stressors? So what happens to your body when you are experiencing prolonged, chronic stress? Common symptoms you might experience include:
- Digestive problems like butterflies, feeling like food just sits in your stomach, irritable bowel, gastritis, heartburn and ulcers (because when you do get a chance to relax, your stomach acid turns on much faster than does the protective bicarbonate layer) Good digestion is one of the most important pillars of good health (physical and mental), yet the digestive system is one of the most impacted by stress.
- Muscle tension problems such as muscle contraction headaches (very commonly misdiagnosed as migraines), bruxism (clenching your teeth in your sleep), tightness in your lower back.
- Sleep problems such as problems falling asleep (can’t get your mind to shut off), waking up in the middle of the night (needing to stay vigilant so you don’t go into deep sleep), non-restorative sleep (waking up feeling just as tired as when you went to sleep), restless legs, etc..
- Blood sugar problems like hypoglycemia and wide sugar swings.
- Liver overload symptoms like PMS and feeling toxic.
- Mental health problems like depression, anxiety, problems focusing and concentrating.
- Immune dysregulation such as more colds, the colds going deeper into your system like sinus infections and bronchitis; viruses waking up such as cold sores, herpes and mono; being in a pro-inflammatory state and getting over-use symptoms easily; developing reactivities to foods and environmental chemicals.
- Cardiovascular problems such as high blood pressure and heart rhythm problems.
When the stress goes on longer, these patterns can get entrenched in your body as chronic diseases. Some that are commonly associated with stress include:
- Hardening of the arteries: this problem is caused by rapid fluctuations in blood sugar, being inflamed, and having high blood pressure- all three are caused by stress. This condition causes heart attacks (the number one killer) and strokes (the number three killer in our society).
- Diabetes type II: this condition is caused by insulin receptors loosing their ability to “hear” insulin. High cortisol (a stress hormone) levels are a common cause, combined with poor digestion, poor diet and obesity (which is also caused by chronic stress). One third, soon to be one half, of Americans have this condition.
- Fertility problems. Some estimate that one out of every eight couples struggle with infertility and the number is increasing every year.
- Auto-immune diseases.
- Fibromyalgia/ chronic fatigue syndrome.
- Degenerated discs in the neck and back from the chronic tight muscles.
- Cancer may also be on the rise secondary to the chronic immunosuppression caused by stress.
There is obviously much more to this topic than I can go into here. Whole books have been written about the health effects of stress. The important point is that these effects are, for the most part, preventable. Even in today’s society. You have the power to restructure your relationship with potential stressors so that they don’t make you sick. Check out past and future blog posts to learn more about this. A good starting point would be Be Impervious to Stress: Six Simple Steps and the follow up blog post Be Impervious to Stress, Part II.