David Godot, Psy.D.

Is Chronic Stress Ruining Your Health?

Photo by ecstaticist

For thousands of years, life was simple. You spent most of the day dawdling around with your family. You dozed, made arts and crafts, tended fires, gathered nuts and berries. The only time this lifestyle got hectic was when it was time to track and kill an animal, or when it was time for you to run away from an animal that had it in mind to track and kill you. Simple, acute stressors that you could fully recover from within an hour. There were other sources of stress, of course: fighting for dominance within your group, and fighting against other groups. These probably occurred relatively infrequently, and probably usually didn’t last that long.

When we are presented with something stressful, our physiology responds fairly dramatically. Stress hormones like cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream, inducing a variety of physical changes: increase in heart rate, increase in blood pressure, increased blood flow to the major muscle groups, decreased blood flow to the extremities, down-regulation of immune functioning, decreased digestive activity.

These all happen to be very good things when immediate survival is threatened. The changes in blood flow work to ensure that your major fighting and running muscles have an adequate supply of oxygen and glucose to either fight to the death or run away. The decreases in immune and digestive functioning ensure that no precious energy is wasted on functions that, while necessary in the long run, have no bearing on survival in a fight-or-flight situation.

The problem is that our modern lifestyles expose us to a new and different type of stress, while our bodies continue to use the age-old adaptations to manage it. The stressors most of us encounter these days tend to be somewhat less severe, and much more frequent. They also lack the clear boundaries of their ancient predecessors. We no longer worry about the kill; now we worry about the bills. We worry about the number of crimes committed in our neighborhood, we worry about problems communicating at home, we worry about our self-esteem. The problem has shifted from an acute biological one to a chronic psychological one.

The physiological effects of the stress, however, remain the same. This is why your doctor will tell you that your stressful lifestyle can give you a heart attack. Prolonged increase of heart rate and blood pressure increase the risk that your heart and blood vessels will fail to withstand the pressure, resulting in heart attack and stroke.

There are subtler effects as well. Most people realize that the immune system plays a role in the eradication of pathogenic invaders, but many do not understand that it is also involved in the body’s natural housecleaning processes. Cells that are dead, dying, or poisoned must be cleared out in order to avoid resource waste, to reduce the risk of infection, and to prevent mutations. If the immune system is not functioning optimally, your risk for all of these outcomes is proportionately increased.

The same goes for digestive processes. If your guts are being mostly shut down most of the time, you’re likely to suffer various forms of malnourishment. This further reduces your defense against stress by reducing your energy levels, and further reduces your defenses against disease by inhibiting immune functioning some more. It’s generally a bad state to be in.

Life, of course, is going to continue to be chronically stressful, and so we will all continue to be placed at risk for the medical events and degenerative diseases that chronic stress facilitates. However, there are a ways to reduce the effects of that stress. They all involve the invocation of your body’s natural relaxation response.

Just the way your body has a fully integral stress response, it also has a relaxation response. The relaxation response reverses the effects of stress by clearing out the stress hormones from your blood, reducing your blood pressure and heart rate, and returning your digestive and immune functioning to normal. In short, the relaxation response returns your functioning to its normal, healthy, resting state.

The relaxation response can be invoked through any type of active relaxation activity, such as relaxation exercises, mindfulness meditation, or self-hypnosis. Passive relaxation such as listening to music or watching TV—while enjoyable—do not seem to activate the body’s relaxation response, and so do not have the same positive health impact as active relaxation.

In upcoming articles, I’ll talk about specific methods for activating your body’s relaxation response, as well as ways to use those same techniques to improve your mind-body relationship in ways that can have a direct impact on your physical health.