Stress - it’s all around us, always has been, and always will. But what is stress? Why does it exist, and how can we cope with it?
There are two kinds of stress; good stress, and bad stress. Yup, stress can actually be a good thing. Stress can be a motivator, and helps push people to get the job done. On the other hand in the long term, stress becomes damaging to ones health.
Stress, what is it good for?
Stress is a very useful tool. It’s a mechanism for avoiding harm; imagine being chased by a lion, that’s stressful right?! Our body's response gives us super-human speed to get the heck away from that lion. There’s a classic example of a child being trapped under a car, and the mother having super-mom strength to lift the car off her child. Stress also helps us perform better when we are under pressure - say at a discussion, meeting or performance. Stress triggers a chemical response in our bodies. Stress hormones like corticosterone and epinephrine are released from the adrenal glands. In the short term, this is beneficial for getting things done, but in the long-term stress taxes your adrenal glands which then taxes your other body systems.
Stress In Modern Life
Here’s the typical way stress plays out in modern life (now that running from lion's isn't so much of an issue) - we are over scheduled, over stimulated and over worked. This lifestyle causes high levels of stress and pressure, that rarely lets up. Work commitments, raising children, caring for relationships, eating unhealthy food, illnesses, hormone imbalances, insomnia and pain all add to the mounting pressure. To keep up with these demands, our body uses our innate emergency energy back up system (the adrenals), the same one used for running from a lion, or saving our children's lives.
What Does Chronic Stress Do?
We have two basic nervous systems: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “fight or flight” reactions. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our “rest and digest” reactions.
The adrenals are small glands that sit on top of your kidneys and are responsible for releasing stress (fight-or-flight) hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. When you’re in fight or flight mode your body focuses on keeping you alert and amplified stops focusing on other non life saving things. During fight-or-flight your heart rate and blood-pressure go up, more blood is moved to your extremities, you stop digesting food properly, your immune system weakens and reproductive system slows down. This is only supposed to last long enough for you to get away from the stressor, but if you are under chronic stress, this is how your body is functioning all the time.
Chronic stress adds up in our bodies. Over enough time, you have completely exhausted your adrenal glands. Adrenal fatigue can cause low energy, digestive problems, infertility, insomnia, high blood pressure, thyroid imbalances, muscle tension and pain and a suppressed immune system. If your immune system isn’t quite what it should be, you might experience prolonged or frequent colds, allergies, congestion, chronic cough, craving sweets, weight gain, dryness-skin/nose/eyes and more severe cases autoimmune disease. Without a balanced adrenal system you can’t have a balanced immune system.
It’s can be quite a vicious cycle: if you are feeling exhausted, you drink some coffee (or other stimulants) to get you going on with your busy day, which helps only for the moment to give you energy, but causes even more adrenal burnout.
How Can I Lower My Stress
Now you can see the importance of frequent stress relieving life practices. This looks different from person to person: yoga, exercise, meditation, prayer, art, music, therapy, hikes, music, oh yeah and acupuncture! Making the choice to change the vicious cycle really hard when our lifestyle is so ingrained; it requires some serious effort and follow up. And that’s where acupuncture comes in. Acupuncture is really useful for recovery, and for helping with times of transition. Acupuncture not only treats your symptoms, it’s a complete medicine that balances you mentally, physically, and emotionally - plus it's been clinically proven to reduce stress hormones and improve your stress response!
Recommended reading: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers is a book by Robert M. Sapolsky.