Physical and Psychological Approaches to Stress

feeling stressed?They say that nobody gets through this life without experiencing death and taxes.  But, since both of these life experiences are stressful, it's safe to say that nobody gets through life without experiencing stress, either.

Stress isn't just a health problem, it's one of the major root causes of health problems.  In fact, it is likely that most illness has at least some stress related component.  (I personally can't think of a time when I got sick when I wasn't feeling stressed.  How about you?)

I have personal experience dealing with the problem of stress.  In college I was introduced to Dr. Richard Rahe's Life Changes Stress Test.  The test ranks different life events and gives them a stress score.  For example, “death of a spouse” has the highest score (100), divorce is second at 73.  Even positive events have a stress factor associated with them.  Marriage is 50 and a Vacation is 13.  You check all the events you've had and total the score.  Between 150 and 299 you're moderately prone to stress related illness, while over 300 you're very likely to have stress related illnesses.  

When I first took the test in college I was over 300 and scored high for the previous three years as well.  More recently, I went through a 7-8 year period in which all of the following happened: I went through two divorces, the break-up of three business relationships, the death of a child, the death of both of my parents, serious financial problems that culminated in bankruptcy and seven changes in residency, along with, of course, the normal stresses we all face such as bills, taxes, etc.  I've never totaled my score for those years, but I'm sure I was over 300 for several of them.

I'm not going to pretend that I went through all of this unscathed.  Quite the contrary, I suffered major adrenal burnout and gained a few unwanted pounds during the period mentioned above.  I'm still not quite back to where I'd like to be energy and weight-wise, but I haven't developed any serious health problems, my hair hasn't turned gray and I still look much younger than I am.  So, I'm still in good shape for my age, in spite of the stressful experiences I went through.  

I attribute part of my ability to manage stress to my knowledge of herbs and nutrition, but I also know that the stress management skills I was taught in college (and have continued to learn about since) have played a key role in my healing process.  So, bottom line, I'm speaking from first hand experience, not just theory, when I tell you that the stuff I'm about to share really works.  And, since stress is both a physical problem and a psychological problem, and I'm going to cover both aspects of stress management.

Physical Effects of Stress

stressed-manStress is a physical problem because stressful events cause the release of various chemical messengers (hormones and neurotransmitters) that produce physiological changes in the body.  These chemical messengers are responsible for the physical effects of stress that can undermine our health and wellbeing.

The immediate effect of stress is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the depression of the parasympathetic nervous system.  The sympathetic nervous system creates the physiological reactions you have when someone “jumps” you from behind the doorway.   The physical reactions to being startled are instantaneous because they are created by the nerves.  These reactions include your heart beating faster, shallow rapid breathing, hair standing on end and your pupils dilating (making you wide-eyed).  These reactions also move blood away from your digestive organs and into your muscles and brain.  

The cumulative effect of this is that your body gets put on “red alert.”  It is poised for action, ready to fight off or flee from the danger.  This is why this stress response has been called the flight or fight response.

Of course, when your friend scares you, the physical reactions are over almost as quickly as they began.  You realize the danger wasn't “real” and your nervous system rapidly calms down and restores you back to normal function.  However, if your mind had perceived the danger as real, then the glandular system would have kicked in to create a stronger (and longer lasting) effect.  Hormones would released from the hypothalamus to stimulate the pituitary to produce ACTH, which would, in turn, stimulate the adrenal glands.  The adrenals would begin pumping out  hormones like cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), aldosterone and testosterone into your blood stream to gear the body up for action.

There's Nothing Wrong with Stress (Really!)

pulling hair outThere's nothing wrong with any of this. It's actually a very positive thing.  If you were being attacked by a mugger (the modern equivalent of a bear or mountain lion), you'd want all those stress hormones because they allow your body to physically perform at it's peak.  In fact, it isn't even really fair to call these hormones stress hormones because that implies they cause stress.  They are really anti-stress hormones because they are gearing your body up so you can take action to combat what is  really stressing you (the problem or situation you perceive as dangerous or painful).  

So, what's the real problem here?  Well, I can see three.  First of all, it takes nutrients to produce these chemical messengers--nutrients like B-complex, vitamin C, zinc, and l-tyrosine.  Modern diets are often low in these nutrients, so as one is repeatedly exposed to stressful events, the body can easily “burn up” its nutrient reserves.  At this point, the nerves and glands can no longer pump us up with enough “juice” to deal with the stress we are facing.  That's when we start to feel overwhelmed, exhausted and defeated.

So, it's quite obvious that good nutrition is going to increase our ability to manage stress.  Sugary, caffeinated beverages may temporarily “amp” us up and help us “get through the day,” but ultimately they will contribute to our nutritional depletion.  So, a diet full of whole, natural foods will provide more anti-stress nutrition than the SAD  Standard American Diet.  If you're under a lot of stress a little extra nutritional boost in the form of some Nutri-Calm (a B-complex and vitamin C supplement with nervines and adaptagens from Nature's Sunshine) wouldn't hurt either.  

Years ago I read an article by Australian Naturopath Dorothy Hall about silica.  She maintained that silica also helps the body cope better with stress, both mechanically and emotionally.  Silica is primarily found in the peelings and seeds of foods (the chewy parts).  When we peel and core and throw away all the chewy stuff and only eat the soft parts of our food, it makes us soft, too.  So, HSN-W another Herbal Minerals Formula containing horsetail can also be a good formula to keep your nerves from “fraying” when you're feeling really stressed.

A second reason why stress becomes a problem for many of us is that today's problems, unlike many of the sources of stress people faced by people in the past, usually don't call for physical action.  We don't have fields to plow, mountains to climb, bears and lions to fight (or run away from).  Instead, our modern stress is largely mental (bills, traffic, work, family problems, etc.) which don't take much physical effort to fix.  (It's true, you could try running away from bills and family, but they'd probably just track you down, wouldn't they?)

However, even when you're stressed because you're stuck in freeway traffic, looking at a stack of bills or having your boss threaten to fire you, the physical reaction remains the same.  The event still releases  the hormones that gear the body up for physical action.  Since there is nothing physically to do, this can make us feel tense, irritable and edgy and will sometimes cause us to explode with anger or frustration.  

However, if you've ever taken a walk to let yourself “cool down” then you understand that channeling that energy into any kind of physical activity dissipates it.  The physical activity “burns off” the stress hormones.  So, just about any kind of exercise, even walking, is going to reduce your stress level.   Right now, I'm doing a lot of work in my garden, and that does wonders for reducing my stress levels.  In fact, I enjoy it so much, it makes it difficult to come to the office sometimes.

Time to Relax?

relaxing on grassThe third problem that makes stress a serious issue for many people is the unrelenting nature of many modern problems.  Stress can be thought of as stimulation, because that's what it's doing—stimulating us to action.  As long as we also have “down time” where the parasympathetic nervous system can activate and help us unwind, it's not a problem.

During our “down time” the parasympathetic nerves move blood to the digestive organs and the reproductive organs, enhancing digestion, elimination and sensual pleasure.  Tissue regeneration and repair (i.e., healing) also take place under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system.

Traditionally, people relaxed in the evenings, ate meals in a relaxed atmosphere and took more time for recreation.  We often think that hunter-gatherer people's (like the Native Americans) must have had very stressful lives living in the wilderness and having to forage for food, but this is not the case.  Researchers have discovered that these people spent only 15-20 hours per week working and much of the remaining time was spent playing, relaxing, socializing, etc.  Just look at your household pets (if you have any).  How much time do they spend just lying around relaxing?

In contrast, many of us eat on the run (that's why they call it “fast food”), work long hours at jobs that don't require physical activity and seldom take time to just kick back and take it easy.  Unwinding often involves watching TV, which may contain violent and stressful images that provoke the release of more stress hormones.  Even our vacations tend to be adrenaline-pumping experiences: extreme sports, wild amusement park rides and rushed vacations.  In short, many people in modern society never take time to really unwind.

So, if you're nutrient-depleted, seldom exercise and are constantly rushing around with little time to relax, your stress level will stay pretty high.  This will cause your blood pressure and your blood sugar to stay elevated, your muscles to stay tense, your digestion and elimination to be poor and your nerves and glands to become increasingly depleted.  In short, you've made yourself more prone to infections, diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and hear attacks, constipation, indigestion and even cancer.

The answer to this problem is simply making (not finding) down time.  You have to schedule time for relaxation.  It may seem like you have too many things to do to afford to take the time off, but if you don't do it voluntarily, your body will make you do it involuntarily by making you sick.  (And that kind of down time isn't any fun!)

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