If you look at any well respected medical institute’s website you will find reams of documentation on how stress is affecting your life - mentally, physically and spiritually - so I’m sure it comes as no surprise to see a headline like this.
From cancer, heart disease, diabetes, migraines, alzheimer's, dementia, erectile dysfunction, asthma, eczema, athletes foot and the common cold, stress can most often be found at the root of these and a host of other diseases.
I’m not saying that stress is the only cause, just one of the biggest factors. And that’s just the list of diseases, let’s not forget the effect that stress has on your ability to think clearly and creatively, your productivity levels, your ability to act rationally, on your patience with kids, partners, friends and family members, your sex drive, your weight and how fast you’re ageing.
Stress literally messes up
It’s why so many of the world's top CEOs, sports people and celebrities are turning to meditation to up their game at home, at work and in the bedroom.
And what frustrates me most is that, although the medical profession understands how destructive stress is and documents it on their websites, in practice, very little is being done to address this epidemic. How many of you have visited the Doctor, presented your symptoms and instead of discussing the root cause of a problem you’ve been given a prescription to mask the symptoms and then sent on your way? Just to be clear, I’m not having a go at Doctors themselves, but at the system in which they work which doesn’t allow them the time or resources to do otherwise.
So what is stress?
Stress is a general catch-all term that we’ve adopted to describe feelings of anger, anxiety and being overwhelmed. In fact, there are 5 distinct ‘flavours’ of stress:
Anger: Mildly irritated to full-blown rage
Fear: A little concerned to absolute terror
Sadness: A little blue to deep depression
Boredom: An inability to detect bliss in the present moment. “I don’t want to be here”
Mania: Unsustainably high levels of happiness. Can’t stop talking, really hyper
Did 4 & 5 surprise you? When you train as a meditation teacher you become a bit of an expert on stress and I’d never realised that bore
dom was stressful. All those years of school and college - staring out the window wanting to be anywhere else. Even looking back to the annoying kid I was. “Mum I’m bored!” and “Are we there yet?” quickly pop to mind.
Stress can generally be looked upon as anything that puts a demand on the body and requires energy to handle and you ‘get stressed’ when you don’t have the energy to deal with it.
So why do we even get stressed? How is this serving us?
The truth is, it’s not. The stress response, or fight or flight, is a system that served our ancestors well, yet is slowly killing us today.
Fight or flight is a stress response system that gave our ancestors the best chance of survival when they came across a sabre tooth tiger whilst out for a stroll.
Their senses detected the attack and the amygdala, which is the area of the brain that controls decision-making and emotional responses, ordered their body to switch into fight or flight mode and many changes happened instantaneously:
Stress chemicals: Cortisol and adrenaline flood the system. They make you feel hyper-alert and mask any pain from injury so you can continue to fight/flee even with a pulled calf muscle.
Peripheral vision: Range of vision is reduced so you only see what is in front of you.
Pressures increase: Heart, respiration and blood pressure: Rates go up to quickly send oxygen to your muscles.
Energy released: Sugars are released into the bloodstream to provide energy to your muscles.
Blood thickens: And coagulates so you bleed less if bitten.
Acid: Is released onto the skin to make you less tasty if bitten.
Evacuate: Bladder and bowels evacuate to make you lighter on your feet (it’s why we pee or poop a lot just before a big presentation that you’re nervous about!)
These changes gave you the best chance of surviving an attack.
Now, these stress chemicals are pretty toxic and I’m sure you can all guess that thick, sugary blood and acidic skin isn’t good for your long-term health. So why does your body do this to itself? Typically, the physical act of fighting or fleeing would burn these off and then you’d curl up in your cave and sleep while your body got back on track with the things it had put on hold such as:
Sleep and eating: You certainly can’t nap, and there’s no point in having a snack if you’re about to be a snack!
Immune system: You don’t need to fight disease cells if there’s a chance you’ll die in a moment.
Digestion: Acid is dumped into your stomach to burn up any undigested food and work stops on distributing nutrients around your body.
Repair: There’s a maintenance team that should be constantly at work
repairing damage and ensuring everything in your body is in top working order. When in fight or flight, their to-do list goes on the back burner and they prepare to charge to the site of a bite.
Sex & fertility: These are also put on the back burner. You’re not concerned with procreating the next generation if you’re about to die!
Now let’s fast forward many many thousands of years and this system is still in use in your body today.
Your ancestors were those with the strongest fight or flight instincts who lived to fight another day and celebrated by procreating future generations! They were able to burn off the effects through physical activity and you can also. It’s why a lot of people look at exercise as their way to de-stress. Shaking, crying and screaming can also allow your body to physically process the stress. Great to know, yet let’s face it, it isn’t all that graceful, especially in a work environment. So your body has no other option than to store the stress away, thinking that it will deal with it when it gets the time.
Yet there is a design flaw in this system.
Your senses cannot distinguish between a physical attack that we actually need to fight or flee, like a mugger or rabid dog, and you imagining a negative situation in your head. Sitting there fuming about the repercussions of being late whilst in the car park known as the M25 produces the same physical response in you as it did in your ancestor who faced a tiger and lived.
And if the fight or flight response is activated often enough, your body will just give up turning it on and off and keep it on all the time, and no amount of exercise is going to clear that! So every day, more and more stress is stored in your nervous system and the body's to-do list gets longer and longer. This is why stress is the biggest reason behind so many health issues today - heart attacks, cancer, diabetes, alzheimers. The list goes on.
By combining the constant presence of toxic stress chemicals AND the disengagement of the systems that are there to help your body maintain a good level of repair and fight off infections and diseases and you can see why stress is being called ‘the black plague of the 21st century’.1