by Tracey Roizman, DC, DACBN
“A healthy attitude is contagious, but don’t wait to catch it from others.” This quote by a wise person relates to the mental/emotional aspect of the classic triad of health.
From the perspective of health and health care it is your attitude, or more accurately your coping strategies that determine your stress levels. Your stress levels largely determine your state of health.
The Good and the Bad
Usually the term stress has a decidedly undesirable connotation. Studies often show, however, that we actually thrive more, spend more time in our creative “zone”, when we are at work than at leisure. Having a purposeful task and being focused on it is often all it takes to get into your zone. We are designed to be at our best when setting and meeting challenges. Life itself is a calculated risk. “Why not go out on a limb?” as one wise person surmised. “ Isn’t that where the fruit is?”
Certain physical stresses are also known to be healthy. Exercise makes bodies strong and resilient in many ways, from preventing injuries to improving immune function. And even though we usually fight it, gravity is more your friend than you might realize. Weight bearing exercise builds bones by causing a micro-current of electricity in the mineral salts of bone tissue. This electric spark is the signal that starts a series of events that leads to more bone being built. A spark of creativity, so to speak. Conversely, astronauts who spend time in space outside the earth’s gravitational field lose significant bone mass in a short span of time. A sedentary lifestyle will have the same result over a longer time period.
Mental stress is far more subjective than physical stress. An experience or circumstance one person finds stressful might be inspiration, a creative spark, to another. A survey of high-level executives found that these individuals report that adversity inspires them in their jobs. Career politicians typify the thick skinned personality type that can thrive in an arena defined by high-level controversy. Many career politicians are quite long lived as well, further supporting that stress is a matter of perspective.
Stress starts in the head and when it escalates, overflows to the body. The term stress response is used to describe the chemical changes that occur following the mental changes that happen when we determine that our immediate or future health and safety are at risk.
Stress chemicals are the same chemicals that your body produces in response to physical exertion. Sitting at your desk and being tense about a work deadline, for example, is the same, at the outset, as far as your body chemistry is concerned as going for a jog. The problem with the work scenario is that your body thinks you are getting ready to go running or at least that you’re getting ready to run away from your job. Understandably, confusion ensues.
At your stress point extra output from the adrenal glands occurs and leads to a surge in blood sugar to accommodate the physical exercise your body is convinced it received an order for. You are now idling at a very high rate. Once your body figures out that it isn’t going anywhere it has to do something with the excess blood sugar. What it does is to put it into long term storage in the form of fat. Some people also respond to feelings of stress by eating to calm their nerves. What they are attempting to do is increase their serotonin levels. In both cases, stress can lead to weight gain.
Along the way to weight gain sharp spikes of adrenal hormones, blood sugar, and insulin add stress to your thyroid gland, which has the job of monitoring and maintaining your overall metabolism. Stress here over time can lead to a variety of undesirable effects having to do with slowing down or conversely, speeding up your metabolism in unhealthy ways.
Additionally, stress leads to suppressed immune function and more frequent bouts with colds and flu. High stress levels impair your ability to think clearly, which effect your productivity and decision making ability. Over time chronic stress alters the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Depression and other personality alterations can set in.
De-Stress Early and Often
Whatever the stressors are in your life it is important to manage them so as to prevent your thoughts and feelings about them from making you physically debilitated. Toward that end there are many methods for de-stressing. The best rule of thumb is early and often. It isn’t necessary to wait for stress to accumulate before taking action. Be assured that it will find you. Practicing de-stressing tools regularly cuts stress patterns off in their early stages. Physical exercise trains your body to release stress. Techniques for replacing old mental processes with better ones help to keep stress from leaking out of your head and into your body in the first place.
A combined approach to de-stressing that incorporates physical exercise, preferably outdoors, and a thought process that enables you to put the problem in perspective is ideal. Also helpful is to leave your problem for a while and help work on someone else’s. This allows you to be in a problem-solving mode yet remain more objective than you would be about your own problem. When you go back to your problem, some of that objectivity will stay with you.
As a chiropractor I treat the effects of stress on my patients every day. I, and many of my patients find that chiropractic care is a wonderful tool for stress reduction. Oftentimes people aren’t aware of how much stress they carry. Our bodies are very good at accommodating us, up to a point. It is best not to reach that point. Regular chiropractic care relieves stress in the deeper connective tissues. Some chiropractors, myself included, also evaluate and treat impaired breathing patterns that arise from stress, thus increasing the amount of oxygen available to your cells.
And finally, read inspiring quotes to help regain perspective and manage stress. For example, as you advance through your life’s challenges you might keep in mind the words of another wise individual who said, “Success doesn’t make you and failure doesn’t break you.”