We all know that stress is bad for our health, but do you know exactly WHY it’s so bad? Well, knowledge is power and to understand something tends to remove the fear of it...I’ve helped people all over the world cope with stress and anxiety and it really annoys me when people feel that stress is just part of life and has to be endured. Well, stress IS part of life but if you want that life to be full and long then it needs to be managed, not endured. A few years ago I had a highly successful businessman come to see me at Harley Street. He was
feeling anxious and suffering from insomnia. Part of the problem was that, for the last few years, he would acquire every cold and flu going. As soon as he heard someone in his office sneeze, he knew their ailment was heading his way. I told him he needed to change job. He wiped his nose with an expensive looking hanky and in a nasally voice said:
“I’ve only got to hold on for another 5 years then I’ll either change career or retire all together.”
I leant forward, looked him in the eye and said “Listen mate. Your body is giving you loads of hints about your lifestyle and if you don’t start taking notice you’re not going to LAST 5 years!”
I then went on to explain to him what I’m about to tell you...
1. ACUTE STRESS
In my book ‘Stress Ninja’ I talk about the concept of the ‘Stress Meter’. This is simply a way of calibrating your stress from a range of 0 to 10. 0 being totally relaxed and 10 is a full blown panic attack. You see, our stress levels aren’t fixed: they fluctuate throughout the day based on external stimuli, diet, hydration, how much sleep we’ve had, etc. We are SUPPOSED to experience stress; it keeps us active, alert and motivated. This is called ‘Eustress’ – ‘Eu’ come from the Greek work for ‘good’. So, as we go about our busy days negotiating the demands of our active lives, keeping the gauge in the ‘healthy’ range is great (around the halfway mark and below).
Now (bear with me) imagine you’re walking down the street and you are suddenly faced with an 800 pound escaped tiger. Your meter will probably hit 10 like one of those funfair games that rings a bell once it’s been violently smashed with a mallet. This is known as ‘Acute Stress’ or the ‘fight or flight’ response. A part of your brain called the Amygdala initiates this response. You will produce the stress hormone Cortisol and your limited blood supply is pushed into your arms and legs and cut off from the following non-essential, blood-intensive systems:
· The Higher Brain Function (Prefrontal Cortex): To escape danger we need instinct and reflexes, NOT intellect - that slows us down.
· Digestive system: Digesting food is a luxury not needed. We need to purge our system which also makes us lighter and more agile. This is why, during life or death situations we can vomit, urinate or worse.
· Immune System: Being able to put up an INTERNAL fight isn’t much good if we are about to lose an EXTERNAL one.
Your legs have been turbo charged with Cortisol, Adrenaline and Oxygen and you manage to somehow escape the Tiger. Believe it or not your ‘fight or flight’ response has worked perfectly. It’s such a good system that not only has it allowed us to survive for millions of years but also to evolve into humans.
1. CHRONIC STRESS
If we go about our lives and the needle on our meters stays on the healthy side then everything is great. The problem is when the needle is constantly floating around the upper range over an extended period. This is called ‘Chronic Stress’. Our ‘fight or flight’ response is millions of years old and it hasn’t had time to evolve to cope with the hectic demands of the modern world. It can’t differentiate between a threat to our lives and a demanding boss. Life is getting faster year on year and the recent Covid Pandemic has pushed up the global, blanket level of stress. People are working in more stressful environments or working from home which means there is no escape from work, no sanctuary. We are expected to respond to our friends, our family and colleagues instantaneously. Read and respond to literally 1000’s of emails, messages, notifications, texts and Personal Messages. People are staying in more with their technology, binging on box sets or shopping online and spending less time with the most important thing: other people.
So fluctuating levels of stress mean we are experiencing the effects of varying degrees of the stress hormone Cortisol. This means:
· The Higher Brain Function (Prefrontal Cortex): During extended, stressful periods our brains run at varying degrees of effectiveness. We experience confusion, forgetfulness and we lose our creativity. Think about having a heated argument where your stress levels go to 7 or 8. The brains blood flow is restricted. That’s why we think of all the things we SHOULD have said later on, when we’ve calmed down. If you’re like me, it’s usually in the shower. The cold fact is that, during prolong periods of stress, we tend to make bad decisions.
· Digestive system: Got IBS? I bet it reduces or perhaps disappears half way through your perfect holiday? I also bet it got worse at some point during the pandemic? Deprive a car engine of fuel and lubrication and it won’t run properly it’s the same with our digestive system. It needs A LOT of blood. You could eat the healthiest food available and still experience indigestion, heartburn and acid reflux because the system itself is faulty.
· Immune System: As I mentioned previously ‘fight or flight’ was designed to be an instant response where it doesn’t matter if our immune systems are switched off for a while. However, having an immune system operating at varying levels of efficiency over an extended period of time is not good. Not good at all!
We have pathogens in our bodies called ‘Opportunistic micro-organisms’. We have been collecting these since birth. They will lie dormant, but if our immune systems drop below a certain level, they will take the opportunity to attack the host. This is not Sci-Fi BTW!..Think back to all the times you experienced Chronic stress, I bet you also experienced some health issues too?
An example: Years ago I received a life threatening amount of Wasp venom. I was hoping to acquire Wasp-like superpowers but instead, I spent a night in the High-dependency unit at my local hospital. It threw my immune system into utter turmoil! I had itchy hives called ‘Urticaria’ all over my body for months. Even though this happened a long time ago, if I experience intense, chronic stress (doesn’t happen very often thank god) they make an appearance. No longer life threatening but VERY annoying!
So, spend some time thinking about your stress and health. There may be a link for you: it might be an annoying cold or a debilitating migraine. As I said at the start, knowledge is power and knowing where your stress levels are at any given time and what happens when they get too high, will change your relationship with stress for the better.
If you’re still doubtful of the relationship between health and stress then here’s a fact for you:
Stress hormones are so good at turning off our immune system that they are actually administered to people who have received new organs, to prevent rejection!
So remember: Acute stress could save your life, Eustress will keep you interested and Chronic stress will make you ill!
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