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STRESS – It’s An Inside Job
Julie Weidenfeld – Corporate Wellness Consultant, TravelFit, Inc.
This morning I slept right through my 3 alarm clocks, hit every red light on my way to work, got stuck behind an extremely slow driver, forgot to get gas and left my notes for a meeting at home. Now, my heart is pounding and my head spinning. Can you relate? Could you feel your heart begin to beat a little faster just reading this?
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
As an infrequent occurrence, stress (also called acute stress) can actually be a good thing to get your adrenaline pumping and release of the hormone oxytocin, which increases the need to be social or get support. The problem is, stress is not infrequent or short-lived for most people. Numerous studies have been created to determine the rate of increased levels of stress in people, as well as some of the primary contributors to this fickle emotion. According to one study out of The American Psychological Association, the number of people who experience chronic stress has increased to 24% in 2016, versus 18% in 2014. When experiencing stress over long periods of time, the damage that can take place inside a body can be fatal. Compound this with a family history of cardiac disease, and you’ve got a recipe for potential serious and irreversible illness.
WHY IS MY HAIR FALLING OUT?
Under unremitting stress, if you begin noticing sudden changes to your body such as poor digestion, loss of hair, skin irritation or sexual dysfunction, it is important to understand exactly what really happens on the inside. Whether the event(s) that causes stress, called a stressor, persists for several days, months or years, the biological results are the same. Stress travels through your body, releasing hormones called cortisol and epinephrine to carry energy stores through blood vessels as a way of protecting certain organs and cells. Typically, those organs are the brain and the central nervous system (CNS). Cells for immunity also temporarily go to ‘battle stations’ to protect the active tissues during an event. (Dhabar & McEwan, Brain Behavior, 1997) You might know this reaction more simply as the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. In rapid, acute stressful scenarios there is minimal to no damage. Over time, however, the transfer of this energy and excess release of these hormones wreak havoc in other parts of your body.
DO I REALLY HAVE TO EXERCISE MY GUT?
Because the cells of the immune system have left their regular locations, other bodily functions become suspended. These include digestion, cell regeneration and sexual activity. Then a domino effect of sorts takes place. This stress response causes the heart to beat faster to push the reactive hormones through blood vessels towards the organs in need. When this happens consistently, the inner lining of vessels, called the endothelium, basically becomes constricted in some locations by transferring all types of cells to the distressed organs. As scientists discover the high level of importance the endothelium has in regulating blood flow, more solutions in protecting these biological reactions to stress can be developed. (Peramayian Rejendran, et al., The Vascular Endothelium and Human Diseases, 2013)
Over extended periods of time, the release of cortisol causes an increased appetite for comfort foods (think macaroni and cheese) and deep belly (or visceral) fat. Since the brain is distracted while under chronic stressed, digestive gut health becomes compromised (causing diseases like irritable bowel syndrome or IBS), which is why you are seeing so many more television ads for products that help to improve gut health.
Additional biological/physiological reactions to prolonged stress can be:
●Compromised immune system
●Rapid weight gain
●Irritable bowel syndrome
●Impaired cognitive function
Exposure to such activity can then lead to chronic morbidities, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even certain cancers.
...BUT THERE IS GOOD NEWS!
Stress, in all its havoc, can actually have benefits as well. In moderate doses, It forces action, can exploit more serious health issues, and can be managed through fun and healthy outlets. One of the more interesting recent findings comes from Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal. After reviewing an 8 year study on the effects of stress (Keller, A., et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality; Sep. 2012), she changed her view on effective stress management by exploring the release of oxytocin, the happy hormone, during stressful situations. By viewing stress as a positive force to motivate or move you forward, negative biological results can potentially be reduced or avoided. Oxytocin fine tunes the brain’s social instincts, which cause people to reach out to friends or family during difficult times. Simply the act of reaching out to others for help, or to offer help, can protect your heart and its receptors. McGonigal teaches science-help related topics at Stanford University, and discussed her new perspective and study results in her extremely insightful TEDTalk.
STRESS CAN HELP YOU GROW!
Daniela Kaufer, Associate Professor at UC Berkeley who studies the biology of stress on the brain, looked specifically at stem cell growth. The hippocampus is the section of the brain that handles stress response, and also regulates learning and memory. The study discovered that, when exposed to short term, moderate stress, like sitting in traffic for an hour or two, stem cell growth was stimulated, and then grew into neurons. Additional testing resulted in improved learning and memory. Keep in mind, this is only under moderate and short periods of stress. (Jaret, Peter; health writer/Berkeley Wellness Newsletter; October 2015; Interview with Daniela Kaufer) In this same article, Kaufer confirms that how individuals view and handle stress itself can determine how it will affect the physiological response in the body. She believes that people who are more resilient and confident can manage stress more effectively than others who might have more vulnerability to stressful situations (such as military veterans suffering from PTSD after active duty. The takeaway here is that, by working on increasing one’s self-confidence and positive self-talk, the effects of stress can be diminished. This is where mindfulness and meditation can take a leading role in a person’s wellness journey.
The body will respond in different ways when stressed. When chronic stress is present, it is recommended to speak with a healthcare practitioner to develop stress management techniques. In addition, it makes sense to have a physical. Often times what might have only been considered stress, can actually lead to more health-related findings, such as blocked arteries or digestive disorders. For example, according to a gastroenterologist in Boca Raton, Florida, patients may end up in his office after being treated for an alleged panic attack, only to learn they have a hiatal hernia or acid reflux. Symptoms of heavy chest, difficulty swallowing and regurgitation of food can be considered stress-related, but can also be evidence of other issues or illnesses. It is not uncommon for emergency rooms to release patients originally admitted for a panic attack, only to learn it was a bad case of indigestion from another underlying digestive disorder. Listen to your body! Don’t discount any unusual physical ailments just because you believe it is stress-related; sometimes there may be more to the story.
ONLY YOU KNOW… what will work for you. If you search for stress management techniques online, you’ll find a plethora of listicles citing ways to reduce this emotion. The specific activities are oft repeated in most posts. It is really up to each person to determine what will work best for them within the confines of their day, schedule, comfort-level and wallet. Simply breathing deeply into your belly for 5 minutes can reduce stress-related signs like a racing heart. Apps like Calm.com and Headspace are designed to focus on the breath. Tony Robbins, before he presents at EVERY event, jumps on his mini trampoline, that accompanies him on every trip. Chewing gum is also believed to be a stress-buster for those who prefer chomping away rather than chanting ohms. Just ensure that you don’t have any jaw deterioration before picking up this habit. Sometimes, all you need is a micro-break which you can learn more about through podcasts such as The Modern Desk Jockey, an informative series on how to improve your wellness while at work (iTunes; Health-Fit Sports Chiropractic-Dr.Kevin Christie).
To suggest that one try to live a stress-free life is entirely unrealistic. To suggest ways to manage it, and how to think about it, are very doable. It’s a matter of perspective. It will require practice. But at least the next time you’re feeling the signs of stress, pop a stick of gum in your mouth, breathe deeply, and spin that stress into a positive outcome!
Julie Weidenfeld is a Corporate Wellness Consultant Specialist focusing on wellness in Finance, Fitness and Food. Combining years of experience in both finance and fitness, and honing her education and teaching skills through Physical Education at Pine Crest School in Boca Raton, Julie’s passion for all things wellness is evident in every aspect of her life. Her goal is to share that passion with as many people and organizations as possible. She is available for educational lunch workshops, in-office or offsite workouts, food programming, and more. She can be contacted at (561) 504-0769, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.