Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Physiology of Stress

This is part 2 of the stress blog I wrote, referenced here
When a gazelle is being chased in the African safari by a cheetah, there are 3 topics that come to mind in order to save it's life.

1) The body  
2) The environment 
3) Time 

The Physiology of Stress
As humans, we can relate to these animal instincts. We obsess over the same things during times of stress. Our body (why is my hair falling out, our reflection in the mirror). Our environment (what are the people doing around me, am I going to be harmed, can I get away). And time (when do I need to leave, when will this be over, how long until the big day.)

The big difference is that as humans, we live inside the illusion of this constant stress-state. The gazelle will relax and begin grazing in the grass after he escaped death, and return to his relaxed, parasympathetic mode within fifteen minutes. As humans, we wake up to an alarm and we're out the door returning to all things unnerving, subject to everyday noises of sirens, cell phone notifications, the demands of life. As over-worked Americans, we have deadlines, job transitions, heartburn and coffee spills on our shirts. We reach a breaking point several times during the day. Then we disconnect from life by turning on The Walking Dead and shows that invoke a stress response just from the visual assault. Even trivial, normal life experiences like not getting a close parking spot, like the wind blowing, the new coworker who's stole your thunder- they all keep us up-regulated in our stress response and getting us closer to fight or flight mode.

We are told all day long by commercials and media that we are stressed for time and need to pay for house cleaning and lawn and tax services. We freak out when there is a car accident, instead of feeling the emotions of empathy for the people involved and gratitude for the fire trucks, police and ambulance for helping. Our heads are so screwed into stress mode that radical experiences don't effect us like they should. Stress causes us to become self-centered because we are after-all, in survival mode - where our body thinks its on the brink of death. Stress is a self-serving mechanism, it shuts off long-term thoughts and it has no care for the emotions of other people. 

The Physical
Doctors confirm 70-95% of all illness and disease is caused by stress. So consider the underlying reason you are calling to schedule your doctors visit. Yes, even that seemingly obnoxious cold you caught, or the seasonal allergies you suffer from are from a burdened immune system. When your immune system is up-regulated,  from the hormones of stress running a muck in your bloodstream, your body is out of homeostasis and you get knocked onto your sick bed.

Physical processes that get out of wack under stress:
  • Decreased sex hormones
  • Decreased nutrient absorption due to nutrients being excreted out before they get into the cell
  • Increased oxidative stress (advanced aging)
  • Increased insulin resistance 
  • Increased inflammation
  • Decreased kidney function
  • Decreased muscle mass
  • Increased blood cholesterol
  • Increased salt retention
  • Increased cortisol
  • Decreased gut flora (good bye digestion)
  • Decreased oxygen supply
  • Decreased thermic effeciency
  • Decreased hydrochloric acid (stomach acid)
  • Decreased growth hormone
  • Decreased T4/T3 (thyroid hormone)
  • Slowed gastric emptying
  • Increased food sensitivity/allergies

How could we NOT get sick with all these human systems going haywire.

After the stress response is activated, reactions to life become unstable based on your perceived focus. When you're stressed, you stop being living in the present moment, you say things you don't mean AND you are a total space cadet.  Under stress, people have conversations with you that you aren't fully vested in and you miss most of what they say. Mental disconnect is a bi-product of the stress induced trance we live inside. You're thinking of your upset client and how someone else eff-ed up the deal and you have to fix it. You're thinking about the ding on your credit and wondering if it means you won't get approved for a loan. You're thinking about this big stuff and your kids are asking for hugs and play time. The whole while, you miss the point completely- you're disconnected and your kids want you. You're missing out on the joy of life, and even your kids are trying to give it to you. In the confines of stress, it seems like there' no way out, that  no one else's problem is as big as yours and there's nothing anyone can do to help. It keeps you trapped there, living joy-lessly. It hurts. It hurts your emotional self, your health and the people you come into contact with.

Chronic Stress
Stress is Automatic. We don't push a stress button to invoke it. We don't have a pill to bring on our stress. Instead, without effort, our body initiates "go-for-launch" mode as fast as you think one thought. That one thought propels you into the sprint of fight or flight mode, using just your imaginative mind. There are major things, like getting called in your boss' office during rumors of lay offs. Realizing you left the rice cooking on the stove and you're half an hour away from home. Realizing someone your husband works with is trying to sleep with your husband. Then there are thoughts of unworthiness, or thinking of how someone hurt you days ago. The perceived ideas of the mind, or the everyday stresses, both cause a chemical reaction in your body, not much different than eating toxic food, binge drinking or taking drugs. Your cells respond negatively to mental assaults, just as painfully as the physical ones.

Super Stress: Fight or Flight
Fight or Flight mode gets turned on without deliberate intent. Fight or Flight is what happens when stress is taken to the extreme, its like a black hole you can't think your way out of. But, good news here, fight or flight gets activated automatically. We don't have to put on our workout pants or draw out detailed escape plans; instead our body responds on a dime to release our super human traits. But over time and repeated activation, this response system gets worn down. You become used to the car alarm and the heavy caseload at work and you daily life becomes unknowingly-dedicated to the constant stimulus. If you stay in fight or flight mode too long, your system adapts to the high levels of cortisol, resistant to it and subservient to its damaging effects. Hello adrenal fatigue. Not only can people not lose weight in chronic stress mode, but they gain fat despite a clean diet and healthy eating because the body is not thriving, it's running the hamster wheel at super warp speed. When cortisol is in your system long term, you're bordering on insulin resistance. On top of that, high levels of stress cause some of us (guilty!) to overeat in order to get comfort, to release the stress. Never helpful for weight loss efforts. 

Stress and Body Fat
Fight or flight mode helps us survive by sending extra blood to our limbs so we can run, stopping digestion so we don't waste energy on needless places, it heightens our senses so we can see further and run faster. Yes, the fight or flight mode makes us ALL super human despite how long its been since we worked out. Women have been known to lift entire cars off their children to save their life. Survival mode helps save us and our loved ones, but modern times keep us in a hold under the drowning waters of stress. Stress pulls all available glucose (blood sugar) into the bloodstream to make sure you're ready to outrun danger. But when you're stressed out of your mind, and sitting watching The Walking Dead or stressing about a friendship you screwed up, all that sugar gets pumped into your body, inviting diabetes and blood sugar imbalances. Then gets dumped into your fat cells. And your liver is not going to be burning up fat, i.e. you're not going to be loosing weight when you're stressed out because your body is worried about keeping you alive. To your body, it's about the BIG picture.

Reacting Drunk
Think of drunk people, hyper-reactive to everything. Then the next morning, the now hung over person wakes up confused, not sure what logic they used when they said dumb things and acted out of character. Their body and mind were hijacked. Stress does the same thing - it seizes your body and makes your reactions automatic and selfish, instead of intentional. Don't let stress hijack your thoughts and behavior. When you're stressed out, you are not thinking with logic and reason, you're thinking within the  confines of survival mode. Manage your stress so you can stay inside your body and aware of everything going on. When you are aware, you are in control of your life. Lucky for you: you decide how you feel and react to any situation. Bad situations will always come your way, people will unfriend you on Facebook, traffic is inevitable, those things are unavoidable. Accept that it's not the situations that need to change, but instead YOUR REACTIONS to them.

Solution Time:
Weight loss happens in Rest and Digest Mode. Anytime you sleep, you relax, you are taking deep breaths- you're letting your body know it's OK to repair the system and release extra weight. You're letting your body know that the world is a safe place and there's nothing chasing you.  So don't feel lazy for spending 30 minutes reading a book or sleeping in. Feel confident that relaxation is you in fat burning mode. Stay tuned for my next blog on How to Reach Rest and Digest Mode.

Just know this.  YOU are unique and needed in the world. You are needed to be your best self, and your best self is present and caring toward others. Your best self is not the one worried, angry, unworthy, revengeful, or dishonest. Those are the emotions of stress and they aren't serving you. Not now, not later. They are keeping you in a holding pattern, so nip 'em in the bud.

Want more on Stress, my older post: