Stress is a word that haunts us. It inundates our lives. Its dangers seep through the nooks and crannies of our minds. We’re bombarded through TV, newspapers and the internet with the idea that stress kills! It is said to be responsible for a myriad of diseases from which we suffer: heart disease, cancer, headaches, depression, dementia and anxiety.(1) Our daily conversations are strewn with references to the stress we experience: the job, the kids, finances, terrorism, college educations, crime, etc. Life has become a balancing act of endless multitasking. Our sleep is punctuated with “what if’s.” What if I lose my job? What if I’m sicker than I thought? What if our child doesn’t make it to that special school? What if…?
Given the importance stress plays in our lives, what is stress? Is it increasing? Is it something we’re doing that is fostering stress’ effect on our lives? Can it be managed? Is it as dangerous as they say?
Let’s explore what stress is and why it seems to be so universal and on the rise.
The Nature of Things
Medical science now recognizes that our biology is intimately intertwined with our emotions, thoughts and lifestyles. Science has admitted, after long denials, that the emotional challenges we face can make us ill. There is even a bonafide scientific discipline, Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), dedicated to studying mind/body interactions.(2) But more about that later. For now, let’s learn about the nature of stress. There are, generally speaking, three types of stress that Robert Sapolsky(3) an American neuroendocrinologist, professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery at Stanford University has summarized: acute physical crises, chronic physical challenges and psychological and social problems.
Acute physical crises make up much of what animals face on any given day. They may be stalked by a predator or they may be hungry and doing the stalking. It can involve long running battles across the plains or through trees. One fleeing for his life, the other hungry and needing to feed her young. Homo sapiens through most of our history have been either the hunters or the hunted.
Chronic physical challenges such as storms, famines, droughts and earthquakes have plagued animals all throughout natural history. Humans have had to recognize the seasons, cope with weather disruptions and the like. When it stops raining and water is scarce large herds of animals and humans have had to travel far and wide to survive.
Psychological and social problems are reserved mostly for humans, other social primates and some animals. If I asked you to make a list of the things that worry you, what might they be? For most of us reading this article, much of what worries us would not be the fear of starvation because the crops have failed or whether or not we will be attacked by a predator while out searching for food. Mostly, we create stress through our own thinking. I’m sure you have worked yourself up into a frenzy over some perceived interpersonal issue (the boss, the spouse, the traffic, the news) while sitting alone in a room. And, we can carry that frenzy around inside of us for hours, days, years and even entire lifetimes. This ability is what science has found can make us, in the long run, sick.
Sapolsky (4), in his acclaimed book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers states:
A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions. (p. 6)
Our social position in society adds to this long term stress. Are we closer to the winners at the top of the hierarchy or closer to the perceived losers at the bottom? Epidemiologists have demonstrated that societies with the greatest status inequalities are the least healthy. Not surprisingly, poverty is a sure predictor of disease. But social status alone and its accompanying stigma also is a predictor of ill health. In the famous UK Whitehall studies, conducted by Michael Marmot, (5) Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London, the health of 18,000 British civil servants was tracked from 1968 to the late 1990’s. Marmot, in his groundbreaking work The Status Syndrome, found that:
The men at the bottom of the office hierarchy have, at ages forty to sixty four, four times the risk of death as administrators at the top of the hierarchy. More dramatic than the difference between top and bottom is the gradient. The group second from the top has higher mortality than those above them in the ranking. (p. 39)
Although we suffer from all three forms of stress, it is the psychological and social aspects that we experience most in modern society. There are still physical threats, like gangs on the subway, and physical challenges, like hurricanes, but most of our stress comes from long-term psychological stress that we create in our minds and is the result of living in a hierarchical, competitive society. Our built-in coping capacities, inherited from our ancient ancestors, enables us to deal very well with physical crises and challenges but unfortunately is not as good at the stresses we face today.
What was once meant to help us survive is now killing us.
An excellent summary of the work of Sapolsky and Marmot appears in the National Geographic documentary Stress, Portrait of a Killer. (6)
Let’s take a look at how our ability to deal with stress is compromised in the modern world.
The Physiology of Stress
Our ability to deal with stress grew out of hundreds of thousands if not millions of years of evolution. When facing a threat or challenge Saplosky (4) indicates that the mind/body makes a “rapid mobilization of energy from storage sites…Glucose…and fats come pouring out of your fat cells, liver and muscles, all to stoke whichever muscles are struggling to save your neck.”(p. 11) To do this our heart rate increases, along with blood pressure and respiration. Digestion stops, as does the sex drive and all growth related functions. A myriad of stress hormones flood the body, cortisol, epinephrine, glucocorticoids, etc. The sensation of pain diminishes. Our immune system becomes compromised. When you’re running for your life there’s no time to worry about healing a wound or infection. This is all done to support our survival and maintain allostasis, the dynamic equilibrium of our body/mind.
In the end, it is the suppression of the immune system that does us in.
Stress and Modern Living
So now we come to the crux of the matter. Our modern lifestyles burden our bodies and minds in ways very different from that experienced by our ancestors. Our stress response system was not intended to deal over the long-term with the psychological and social stressors we have created. Chronic, long-term stress is killing us. Saplosky says it succinctly:
It’s not so much that the stress response runs out, but rather, with sufficient activation, that the stress-response can become more damaging than the stressor itself, especially when the stress is purely psychological. This is the critical concept, because it underlies the emergence of much stress-related disease. (4)
Put another way by John Ratey and Richard Manning in Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization (7):
…the real problem, the killer, is the chronic, unrelenting, unremitting series of regular events that wears us down. (p. 237)
Regular events that remain perpetually unresolved and over which we feel little control, such as hours in traffic, the unfair boss, monthly mortgage payments, boring sex and relationships, lousy food day after day, addictions, lack of sleep, crime, etc. Our stress response never rests. In a fashion similar to the pancreas producing more and more insulin in response to excess exposure to glucose “If we repeatedly turn on the stress response, or if you cannot turn off the stress-response at the end of a stressful event, the stress-response can eventually become damaging.” (4) (p. 16)
Our stress response is always in the “on” position. We find it hard, if not impossible, to turn off our autonomic nervous system. We can’t relax. We need constant stimulation. Our blood pressure never returns to normal, our stress hormones remain high, our blood vessels are constricted and our blood thickens. Our moods fluctuate with anxiety or depression. The Mayo Clinic conservatively states that: “Stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to…high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.” (8) I would add Irritable Bowel Syndrome, insomnia, chronic fatigue, rosacea, allergies, asthma, anxiety, depression, anger, drug abuse, social and interpersonal problems and more.
Modern lifestyles predispose us to disease. Our ancestral health is compromised. Combined with sedentary behaviors, industrialized diets, Western hygienic practices (9) and certain vaccinations (10) stress creates the perfect storm of degenerative disease and psychiatric disorder. Although evolution designed us to meet a wide variety of conditions, modern living places us in a perpetual state of stress that exhausts our immune systems. This sets the stage for chronic disease.
In the next article, I will explore what we can do to reduce stress, restore our ancestral health and remain productive within modern society. Meditation, fostering positive relationships and affiliations, successful aging, cognitive re framing, and “Going Wild” will be covered.
- Sapolsky, Robert M., Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. (2004). Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
- Marmot, Michael, The Status Syndrome. (2004). Holt Paperbacks.
- National Geographic. (2008). Stress: Portrait of a Killer. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYG0ZuTv5rs
- Ratey, John & Manning, Richard, Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind From the Afflictions of Civilization. (2014). Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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