Chronic stress- what does it actually do to us?
Does back pain worsen around Christmas-time? If you asked us, we’ve got enough anecdotal evidence to say yes. But why is that? Clinic gets busier, our patients report symptoms are worse and then blame it on the weather… Now why is this? Well, simply put, as we get towards the festive period and the existing stress in our lives is ramped up yet another notch, we often start to see physical manifestations of underlying stress rear their ugly heads in the form of pain and illness.
Now, it’s not news that stress plays a part in pain and disease. What we’re interested in is chronic stress, and how this can make us ill. I wanted to find out more about the role of chronic stress, so I’ve been working my way through a reading list, including “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky. Now, this blog isn’t really about the inner workings of a zebra’s digestive system, it’s a book which focuses on why we as humans have developed a whole range of accumulative diseases as a result of living our lives chronically stressed. It explains how our body adapts to stress and details what the healthcare profession have had to learn in order to manage our patient’s stress.
Where we used to be killed off by cholera, influenza and leprosy (which did the job fairly quickly, it has to be said), we now suffer long, slow diseases that come about as the result of gradually accumulating a number of healthcare issues. Cancer. Heart disease. Strokes.
In the words of Mr Sapolsky, “Chronic stress can make you sick.”
So why don’t zebras get ulcers? Simply put, zebras don’t get ulcers because they don’t spend hours, days, or weeks stressing about making the mortgage repayment. Or worrying about your big project which needs completing by the end of the month. They worry about if a lion is going to eat them in the next 10 minutes. Their stress is short and to-the-point. It’s only we humans who have geared ourselves up physiologically to have all sorts of physical manifestations to stressful events generated entirely in our heads. If you’ve ever experienced sweaty palms or a racing heartbeat whilst thinking about what might go wrong then you know what I mean. Zebras just don’t do that.
It’s safe to say most of us nowadays live our lives in a state of chronic stress. We don’t take time to look after ourselves and truly de-stress (a soak in a bath doesn’t count!)
What does chronic stress do to our bodies?
In short- chronic stress wreaks havoc. Your body’s response to an acute stressor is perfectly suited for its job. You’re home alone and hear footsteps upstairs- your heart starts racing, blood pressure and breathing rate increase as your body prepares to transport nutrients and oxygen to your muscles STAT. Why?
Because your muscles are going to need that energy as you hot-foot it out the door faster than Usain Bolt! Your body also shuts down digestion (because absorbing dinner suddenly isn’t so important) growth and tissue repair stop, senses are sharpened, sexual drive decreases, and the immune system becomes inhibited (there’s plenty of time to hunt for tumours in a week or so- right now, all your body cares about is getting out of the house and out of danger pronto). Oh, and another neat feature: To stop your body going into shock from extreme pain, your pain perception is decreased. Handy!
So- all good responses from the body and we’re out of danger now thankyouverymuch. But what happens if that stressor doesn’t go away? If your stressor is a busy desk job in a Fortune 500 company, you’ll never be able to switch off the stress response. You might find your heart rate stays at about 180/100 and steers you towards an early heart attack. Your digestion is going haywire, tissue healing and recovery is halted so nothing is ever repaired (hello ulcers!). Not only that, but you’ll never store any surplus energy because your body is mobilised to use it all straight away, and you’ll fatigue quickly.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? It doesn’t stop there though. Illnesses and viruses will be easier to pick up and harder to recover from if your immune system is permanently compromised. This becomes particularly noticeable at this time of year when germs and viruses are floating around. You’ll be shaping up for a very snotty Christmas indeed if you’re stressed!
Stress disrupts our lives. It can make us very ill. As a chiropractor, my chronically stressed patients have widespread muscular tension and sometimes heightened sensitivity to pain. They suffer from headaches or jaw pain, visual disturbances, lower back pain, tummy upsets… Stress causes changes in our nervous system and can result in muscle tension, spasm, and pain. Now, I can adjust their neck to alleviate the headache, but that won’t help if the headache is a result of chronic stress. We need to manage their stress and anxiety or the headaches will just keep coming back (as any of my patients will tell you- I’m focussed on the long-term resolution.)
So what are we going to do about stress?
There are various management techniques and these all work for different people- you’ll have to find what works for you.
Exercise: A simple place to start is with exercise- being physically fit can lower blood pressure, resting heart rate and increase your lung capacity (yes- directly counteracting the effects of stress). Simply put, exercise releases endorphins and endorphins make you happy PLUS it increases your feeling of self-efficacy and achievement. Instead of sitting at a desk getting tense, you’ll be using your stress response for what it’s meant to do- explosive activity! That’s how exercise can be a powerful way of reducing stress.
There are a few caveats to this though:
- Exercise only works to reduce stress if you want to exercise. Your friends forcing you into a spin class isn’t going to help!
- It’s effects are short-lived, lasting only for 24-48 hours. So you have to do it regularly to see the benefit.
- Too much exercise or overtraining can produce a stress response.
Psychotherapy: For natural stress-heads (or, to use the correct term- type A personality), psychotherapy can change your behaviour, lower cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of a heart attack. Stress often depends on how we view problems, and some studies have found that in the face of terrible news, denial and hope are strong coping mechanisms. Don’t accept a poor prognosis and hope for the best- miracles can’t happen.
Ommm… Zen: Meditation is another interesting one. It can decrease glucocorticoid levels and decrease muscle tone/tension. But again, studies show that it works while meditating, but doesn’t necessarily have a long-term effect.
Social Support: In the immortal words of the Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Giving and receiving support from the right friends is going to help, as will the support of a partner or spouse. A problem shared is a problem halved!
What about control?
If you’ve downloaded our resource “Understanding Pain” you’ll already know all about this. If you haven’t downloaded it, we’d suggest you do! Control and belief in your own self-efficacy is a powerful thing. Whilst you can’t have full control over the fact that you have stressful projects to complete, you can gather information about how long the project is going to take for you to complete, what the goals are and who you’ll be working with. This predictive information about impending stressors can help to reduce your stress levels by giving you some control over the situation. This is in much the same way that learning about chronic pain can help you control, cope with and reduce your pain.
The caveat to this is that control isn’t always such a good thing psychologically. If, for example, you have control over a situation that ends up disastrously, that’s going to be completely detrimental to your psychological health. Believing that everything challenge in life can be overcome “provided we work hard for it”, can leave you in a stressed heap in the corner.
How do you cope?
We also need to talk about cognitive flexibility. This is the ultimate ability to “cope”. Try problem-solving the issue and working out if it’s the stressor that needs altering, or your perception of it that does. This can be hugely stress-reducing. Admit that you’re finding something stressful and rely on social support from friends and loved ones- they’ll want to help. You’ll need a selection of coping strategies to effectively deal with stress. You might have a tendency to try to cope with an event, fail, and then go back in and try to cope even harder with the same strategies. If a cup of tea and a chat with friends hasn’t worked, try something different. A meditation class. The gym. Yoga. Speak to a psychotherapist. During times of stress, finding the right coping mechanism for you is critical.
Here’s our ultimate stress-busting check list:
- Find ways to view even the most stressful situation as holding the promise of hope and improvement. But don’t deny the possibility that things will not improve. As they say, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
- Take the time to look after yourself, using coping mechanisms that work for you. However, don’t give ulcers to others to avoid getting them yourself. You might find that a midnight drumming session is just the trick to soothe your nerves, but it’s going to make your neighbour’s life awful!
- What can you predict about the upcoming stressful events in your life? Is your toddler likely to have an over-stimulation meltdown in the middle of Christmas lunch? If so, plan for a quiet hour beforehand to allow them to settle and calm. Guests coming for Christmas dinner and worried about cooking? Gather as much information as you can about them before you turn on the oven! Are there any food allergies, what can you prepare instead? Gather as much information about the upcoming stressors as you can, and then implement a plan to help you cope.
Accept the things we cannot change
In this blog we’ve learnt about just how stress can impact on our lives and wreak havoc in our bodies. There’s no one way to avoid stress- moving to a remote desert island is going to give you all sorts of acute stresses like our poor zebras. (Just think about all the poisonous critters who might see you as a tasty treat!) Fortunately there are numerous ways in which we can cope with and reduce the stress we experience.
The real world is full of stress yet many of these issues aren’t real, we’re worrying over what might happen. Imagined stressors can take over our lives with worry in anticipation of a horrible event happening. It may happen, it may not- worrying about it isn’t going to make it any easier to cope with!
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
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