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Wellness Journey with Joe

Week 16 - Stress Response in Action


Our bodies are incredible machines, able to recognize life threatening stressors and at the same time having systems set up to deal with those stressors.  Remember, these defense systems are so powerful that we human animals have survived to become the king of the forest.

Before we get into what we can do to balance our stress response let’s just take a look and go over the most important points regarding the consequences of a chronically engaged stress system and learn how, when we put ourselves under too much stress, we fall vulnerable to a host of life-style generated disorders.

Digestive System – When the stress response is engaged it is designed to shut down the digestive system by decreasing intestinal contractions, diminishing enzyme secretions, and decreasing intestinal blood flow.  When under stress digestion can wait.  What matters most is getting out of danger, so the body shifts its focus elsewhere.  But remember, the stress response is meant to be turned on and then turned off pretty quickly as we either get ourselves out of danger or succumb to the threat.  Do you feel stressed throughout the day?  If so, this is completely abnormal as far as our evolutionary bodies are concerned.

When under stress our digestive system works  to a minimum.  However, we still eat so we force it into action.  But the tug of the results of stress hormones against the tug of the mechanics of a full belly create digestive disturbance.  This is how an overly engaged stress response causes digestive trouble.  Then what do we do?  In this there-is-a-drug-for-everything  world we live in we are encouraged to reach for the Tums or the Prilosec, thus addressing the SYMPTOMS but avoiding the CAUSE.  Well, eventually if not properly addressed we end up with ulcers, celiac disease and/or irritable bowel syndrome.

Blood Sugar Levels – A healthy stress response increases blood sugar to make energy available to the muscles of our body in order to, literally, fight off the danger that lies before us.  The muscles grab this sugar thanks to the work of insulin opening the muscle cell walls, the muscle contracts using the energy and requiring more until the danger has passed. 

However, when we are under modern day mental stress we don’t necessarily use our muscles to fight or flee and the sugar remains in the system, confusing the body and causing more insulin to be secreted.  This increased secretion of insulin eventually wears out the pancreas, leading to Type II diabetes.

Fat and cholesterol levels increase when under normal stressful situations since they are the chemical backbone for the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and it is imperative that these hormones race through the blood stream orchestrating our ability to defend ourselves.  When the stressor has been neutralized and we relax the body decreases the blood lipid levels. 

However, when under chronic stress the blood fat content is chronically high rendering us susceptible to the accumulation of cholesterol along the walls of the arteries leading to atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke.

Our immune system, the part of our two-part defense system that concerns itself with the invasion of micro-organisms, is diminished during normal times of stress as the external stressor now takes precedence.  Our bodies are amazing, focusing totally on the matter at hand to keep us alive.  However, when the stress response is chronically engaged you can imagine how vulnerable we become when our immune system is diminished.  When suffering from any or especially a series of bacterial or viral infections first ask yourself if you are under any undue stress, and there is where you just may find the answer to how to get back on the track to health.

Concentration and problem solving.  The one thing humans have above all other animals is a much more sophisticated prefrontal cortex in the brain.  It is here that higher learning and higher mental functions take place.  And during times of stress the wisdom of the body knows that problem solving needs to take a back seat to instinctual reactions, more associated with the mid-brain areas.

So you can now guess that when under chronic stress that our higher mental capacities are taxed.  We make more mistakes under stress.  But most importantly, we function at a LESS THAN HUMAN level.  We will address this more in the future, but it is a theme that must be recognized.  Being human means that we are free to use the highest levels of our mental capacity when figuring out the best ways for us to survive.  When we function from the mid brain we are no more sophisticated than any other animal on earth.

It is my opinion that it is from this dynamic of making fear-based decisions that eventually could lead to the extinction of our species if we aren’t careful.

They say that “sex sells.”  Maybe so but I believe that fear sells as much, if not more.  In advertising there  is a saying, “CREATE THE FEAR, THEN SELL THE PRODUCT.”  Look around and see how much you expose yourself to in terms of advertisers selling you products because they’ve convinced you that you aren’t pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough, smart enough, popular enough…  and the list goes on.  We are under seige with advertisers creating stress, fear and unease in order to sell their products.

Your mental health depends on your control of the stress in your life.  Decide what is important to you, pursue those things for the sake of the pursuit and not for the sake of show.  Dig deep and find what your contribution can be in this incredible life you have been given.  You can’t do it all, but you certainly can be productive, healthy and happy.  It’s a beautiful world!

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