Types of Stress
There are many conveniences and advantages to living in the 21st Century, but life is also increasingly stressful. There was a lot of hard work on the farm of 100 years ago, but life was also relatively simple, peaceful, quiet, and life was lived in synch with the sun. In his famous book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” Robert Sapolsky explains that it is very stressful when the lion is chasing the zebra, but that is only for a short period of time. The rest of the time, life for the Zebra is calm and peaceful. He contrasts that with our current stressful lives. We, on the other hand, are under chronic stress, and it is that chronic stress that takes its toll.
In his well-received book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky explains that the zebra has an episode of stress only when the lion is in pursuit; otherwise, he is physiologically calm and his life is peaceful. We, on the other hand, are chronically stressed. The clock rules most of our day. We have to get to the appointment or class on time; we have to finish the assignment by a certain time. We have to keep checking the time to stay on schedule and not miss what is coming up. We have to check our email, answer the phone, and respond to text messages. If we are lucky, we may be able to relax in the evening by watching a TV show or a movie or see what’s happening on Facebook. Since now, we can relax and not watch the clock; we may well go to bed later than our physiology demands, adding to our stress. Studies in fact show that those who go to bed at 11 PM have fewer health problems than those who go to bed at 12. And, those who go to bed at 10 have fewer health problems than those who go to bed at 11. And those who go to bed at 9 have fewer health problems than those who go to bed at 10. But, it is hard indeed to go to bed early because we want some time to either relax or may need some time to catch up on certain tasks. There is an enormous amount of data showing the adverse effects on our health that going to bed late causes. The reason for this is because our bodies were not designed for our current sleep schedules. If you have even been in a natural setting, like tent camping in a remote area, you go to bed not long after sunset and you get up with the sun, and you feel great. That is the pattern our body was designed for and it is stressful to force ourselves to stay awake.
We can call time pressures and staying up late examples of Lifestyle Stresses. Others would include eating a diet that overloads our system with sweets, too many calories, bad fats, and not enough of the phytonutrients from vegetables we need. Another would be inadequate exercise. Did you know that humans have an amazing capacity for exercise? In fact, there is no animal on earth that can out run a human. There are animals that are faster, but none that have the stamina of the human. Early man could successfully chase down any animal because there was no animal that could run as long as a human. One reason for this is because humans have more advanced ways of controlling body temperature. Other animals would overheat in time. Since we were made for high levels of exercise, it is very stressful on our bodies for us to get as little exercise as we do today.
Another type of stress could be called Situational Stress, and it should be noted that even good things are stressful, like getting married, a new job, buying a car, or buying a house. The Holms and Rahe Social Readjustment Rating Scale illustrates this. On this scale, points are assigned for life stressors, both positive and negative, and the higher the total number of points, the greater the likelihood of illness.
We could call another type of stress, Psychological Stress. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study shows clearly that the more stress a child is exposed to, the more mental and serious physical health issues they have the rest of their life. Our self concept, self esteem, sense of safety, and automatic emotional reactions are seated in our unconscious and our unconscious is programmed largely in the first five years of our life, so our early childhood is critical to our later mental and physical health. Fortunately, with expert help, we can reprogram our unconscious and find inner peace, which is critical to our happiness and health.
Health Effects of Stress
Stress affects the whole body, but the data is strong for the negative health effects of stress on the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal system, the hormonal system, the brain, and the immune system. In one well-designed study, it was shown that there was a measurable weakening of the immune system and increased illness at exam time for medical students. The daily burden of caregivers has been recognized as particularly stressful and to be associated with ill health. Chronic stress also raises Cortisol levels, and elevated Cortisol has been shown to damage the brain, cause insulin resistance (leading to Diabetes), hypertension, redistribution of fat in the body, decrease protein synthesis, and decrease DNA repair, leading to more rapid aging and an increased risk of cancer. Weakening of the immune system through multiple mechanisms also leads to cancer and other illness. A shift of the body’s resources from ongoing maintenance and repair of the organism to an all-out defense is understandable when fleeing the lion, but harmful when chronic, as eloquently described in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.
How to Cope With Stress
Some people cope with stress better than others, but there are things we can do to improve our ability to handle stress, and this is important for our health and happiness. Of course, avoiding drugs of abuse, drinking alcohol in moderation and rarely, eating a good diet, exercising regularly, and getting to bed early will greatly improve our ability to handle stress. If you are not convinced, try it for a few weeks and see how you feel.
In his book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford University and recipient of a McArthur Foundation “genius grant,” describes an interesting series of experiments we can learn from. In these experiments, a second rat receives the same electric shock as the first. The second rat does not develop an ulcer if:
- there is a companion rat it can bite,
- it has a piece of wood it can gnaw on,
- it has a warning before the shock,
- it can press a lever it thinks will reduce its shock,
- the shocks are fewer than expected, and/or
- it is accompanied by a second rat it likes.
Sapolsky translates these studies to humans, observing that stress-related illness is less likely to happen if:
- we have an outlet for our frustration,
- we have “a hobby” or diversion,
- we have predictive information,
- we have a real or imagined sense of control,
- we can interpret a stress favorably, and/or
- we have social connectedness.
In his review article, “How the Mind Hurts and Heals the Body,” Oakley Ray describes four classes of coping skills that improve one’s ability to handle stress. (Ray O. How the mind hurts and heals the body, Am Psychol. 2004; 59(1): 29-40)
- Education: the more we can educate ourselves, the more we understand, and the better we can cope with stress.
- Inner Resources: This relates to beliefs, assumptions, and predictions one learns growing up, including whether life is seen positively or negatively. Although these are programmed into our unconscious, with expert help, we can reprogram those beliefs, assumptions, and predictions, and thus greatly improve our ability to cope.
- Social Support: Ray states that in general, the larger the social support system, the lower the mortality rate. Obviously, if social support improves our mortality rate, it is also helpful in other ways. It may be awkward initially, but there are many ways we can expand our social support system.
- Spirituality: Ray refers to Oxman, Freeman, and Mancheimer’s 1995 study, which found that “those who professed no strength and comfort from religion” were three times more likely to die in the six-month study period. (And, in support of Social Support above, those who did not participate in group activities were four times more likely to die than those who did.)
Although perhaps a little heavy, hopefully this discussion on stress gives you some ideas on how you can reduce and cope better with your stress. At Holistic Health & Counseling Center, there are many ways we can help you reduce your stress. Here is a short list:
- Counseling to help you better understand your past history, your current relationships, or help in developing a plan for coping with your current stress.
- Relaxation and Meditation training, and we can greatly accelerate your progress by using Biofeedback.
- Acupuncture because it has been shown to facilitate relaxation and reduce stress.
- Specialized laboratory assessments to optimize your nutrition and supplements.
- Optimize your brainwave functioning, whether “abnormal” or not.
- Group sessions to provide peer support and better understanding of yourself and others.
Part of this section on stress was adapted by Dr. Tatum from his piece entitle “Psychosocial Influences” in Textbook of Functional Medicine, published by The Institute of Functional Medicine, 2005, 2010, pages 137-140.