Stress and your health — it’s not just about being happier
by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
If there is one thing that almost all of my patients — young and old — have in common, it’s stress. There’s no denying that we live in a stressful world. From daily time pressures, to the stress of a toxic environment, it can sometimes seem like we’re swimming in a pool of stress and gasping for air. Along with the more obvious stressors, emotional stress — stress from the stories of our lives — often goes unnoticed, and can sit at the root of many health issues.
The sad truth is that stress is probably the most significant contributor to disease — and it is the most difficult to treat. The World Health Organization estimates that by the year 2020, psychological and stress-related disorders will be the second leading cause of disabilities in the world. It’s fascinating to me that something which can be perceived in our minds can have that kind of effect on our physiology. But if we look at the science, it makes perfect sense. Stress — real or perceived, acute or chronic — affects your health. It changes hormonal pathways and the way neurotransmitters relay information. If these disruptions remain ongoing, there are serious implications for your body. The good news is, it’s never too late to do something about stress.
Part of what makes stress so difficult to treat is that what’s stressful for me and what’s stressful for you can be entirely different. And we often need to dig a little deeper than simply attending a stress management workshop or trying to get to yoga once a week. Let’s take a closer look at this hidden health hazard, on the surface and deeper, so you can work on maintaining your overall health — and youth — by reducing stress.
How stress affects us
Let’s start by looking at the different kinds of stress. Short-term or acute stress is the kind of stress we feel when we’re rushed to finish something, can’t find a parking spot, or get pulled over by a police officer. Thankfully, this kind of stress isn’t permanent. It comes and goes with the threat. But you might recognize some of the physical symptoms listed to the right when this type of stress falls on you.
Long-term or chronic stress, is stress that stays with us for months or sometimes years. In my patients I’ve found that chronic stress can be strongly associated with our life stories — whether it be traumatic events from childhood or events that have affected us as adults, emotional stress plays a large role in the ongoing stress that can lead to disease.
In both acute and chronic stress, the power of the mind-body connection is clear. What we perceive as a stressful or dangerous situation — whether it truly is dangerous or not — has implications in the body. For example, if you’re standing in the street and you think you hear a truck coming, your body physically prepares you to move out of the way, even if the sound is something else entirely. Likewise, our past emotional experiences can color the way we see current situations. If your father had a volatile temper that scared you as a child, you will likely feel scared as an adult when a boss, a husband, or some other male authority figure gets angry, even when that anger isn’t directed at you. So the stress we feel as children can repeat itself and have a lasting effect on how we think and experience life as adults.
Short-term symptoms of stress
- Increased breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Decreased digestion •Irritability
- Fuzzy thinking
- Decreased memory
- Sleep disturbances
- Muscle tension/ soreness/ headache
- Poor eating habits
And there is no doubt that chronic stress affects many systems in the body. To list just a few: We now know that psychological stress disrupts blood sugar metabolism and can lead to diabetes. Chronic stress also affects the immune system, increasing our risks for autoimmune-regulated disorders like allergies, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and hypothyroidism. Studies done in 2006 revealed increased cardiovascular disease with ongoing stress. Being under stress can also influence our perception of pain, sometimes dulling it and sometimes heightening it (again, much of the way we perceive both stress and pain depends on our histories ), as well as altering our neurotransmitters, often reorganizing the way we think and sometimes leading to anxiety disorders and depression. On top of everything else, stress can age our individual cells, making it more likely for us to suffer from age-related diseases earlier. In a study done on 58 healthy women, both real and perceived stress were shown to increase oxidative stress and cellular aging.
So you can see there’s so much more benefit to be gained with stress prevention and relief than simply feeling better in our heads. With the pandemic levels of stress in this world, researchers don’t have far to look for test subjects! As more and more of this research is bearing out, unbalanced stress takes a significant toll on our physical bodies.
The science behind stress
So how can stress lead to so many health problems? If you’ve read my articles before, the HPA axis probably sounds familiar to you. This axis is comprised of a series of hormonal responses and feedback loops between the part of our brains called the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland (also located in the brain), and the adrenal glands, which are located on top of our kidneys. When the brain perceives stress, the hypothalamus secretes hormone messenger molecules that in turn direct the pituitary gland to release a second type of molecule which then stimulates the adrenal glands to release cortisol and catecholamines. These hormones then shift the body’s resources to deal with the stressor at hand.
This response originally evolved to protect us from harm. If we were being chased by a predator or caught beneath a falling tree, the body could protect itself by shifting into “fight or flight” mode. Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands and causes our hearts to beat faster and our breathing to increase. The body is shifting blood, oxygen and an energy supply to the skeletal muscles and heart, and away from the digestive and reproductive organs. Problems arise when this response is chronically turned on at a low level. When the body has increased amounts of cortisol circulating in the blood for prolonged periods, it can lead to the health problems I mentioned above.
Eventually, if the stress response is turned on for years, your adrenal glands become increasingly fatigued. Women who come to see me with adrenal fatigue tell me they can’t even get out of bed in the morning. They sit in a chair and can’t get up, or they literally fall asleep mid-sentence. The state of adrenal fatigue is of concern because it leaves the body unprepared for a more serious event, such as a car accident, major injury, or even major surgery, where cortisol drops precipitously to such a degree that it can be life-threatening (adrenal exhaustion).
There are many ways to support your adrenal glands that will give you better physical and emotional health. (For more information, see all our articles on adrenal health.) The most powerful way to relieve your adrenal glands and protect your body from the negative effects of high cortisol is through understanding the root causes of your stress. I know this is not an easy fix! But when we truly understand where it’s coming from, we can work our way around it.
Where does stress come from?
In my experience, this is the most important question we can ask ourselves, and many times the answer lies in our stories. Long-term stress can develop from experiences we endured as children that manifest themselves as emotional stress in the body. And research now confirms these experiences don’t just go away.
Some of the adverse childhood events identified in the ACE study include:
- Recurrent physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Growing up with an alcoholic
- Growing up with a drug user
- Living in a household where someone was in prison
- Living in a household where someone was chronically depressed, mentally ill, or suicidal
- Living in a household where the mother was treated violently
- Living in a household where the parents were separated, divorced, or in some way lost to the patient during childhood.
In 1998, groundbreaking research known as the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, verified that our childhood experiences remain inside the body and can affect our lifelong health. Over 17,000 people were enrolled to assess the link between emotional experience and health. The study found that those who had experienced an adverse event as a child (see the box to the right) were between four and 50 times more likely to have adverse health conditions or disease as an adult. Yet there are still practitioners today who discount the impact our emotional lives have as primary stressors on the physical body.
One of my patients, Jane, had a three-year history of heavy menstrual bleeding, and had lost so much blood that she became anemic. She’d been to six different practitioners, had been tried on birth control, had a normal ultrasound, and no one could explain the cause of her bleeding. The question that no one asked Jane is: What is your story? After getting to know her, I learned that Jane had a long history of sexual abuse, and was also struggling in an emotionally abusive marriage. When we talked about these issues, I suggested counseling. About a year and a half later, Jane had the courage to leave her husband. And during this time her periods leveled out, she had no increased bleeding, and the anemia resolved. Other women have experienced similar problems. And the forms of abuse can be as subtle as being continually criticized or reprimanded for trivial things, such as not having dinner on the table by a certain time.
I don’t want this to sound like dealing with emotional stress is the only way to be healthy. But I do want women to understand that it is certainly a larger piece of our physical wellness than many believe. For more on this, see my article on how emotional experience determines your health. Or check out a book called Molecules of Emotion: The Science Behind Mindbody Medicine. It’s written by one of my favorite scientists, Dr. Candace Pert, whose research details the molecular changes that occur in our cells when we experience different emotions. Our thoughts are so closely tied to our bodies, that we often have to dig into the past to resolve ongoing stress.
Dr. Sonia Lupien’s recipe for stress:
N — Novelty
U — Unpredictability
T — Threat to the ego
S — Sense of loss of control
Stress — Don’t go NUTS!
* Lupien, S. 2007. “Stressed to death: Aging, long-term stress, and allostatic load”. IFM 14th International Symposium, 05/25/2007, Tucson, AZ.
If you’re wondering how to start examining your own stress roots, it might be helpful to take a look at the work being done at McGill University’s Centre for Studies on Human Stress. Building on research dating back to the 1960’s, Dr. Sonia Lupien, director of the center, has come up with a “recipe” for stress which can be remembered by the acronym NUTS. The letters stand for Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego, and Sense of loss of control. Each of these situations lead to physical stress in the body, and the more of them you encounter, the more hyperactivated your body’s stress response becomes. But you can learn (or be taught) to recognize when you’re responding to one or any combination of these “ingredients,” redirect yourself, and stop yourself from “going NUTS.” This acronym works for both short-term stress and long-term stress, real threats or perceived ones.
While emotional or psychological stress plays a large part in our health, we can’t forget that there are toxic environmental stresses that your body is dealing with as well. Pesticides, heavy metals, processed foods, prescription medications — all of these put strain on your body and contribute to its stress load. You can read more about these physical forms of stress and some ways you can counter them in our articles on detoxification.
Women and stress — is stress in our nature?
When we opened the Women to Women clinic in 1985, we wanted to offer a place where women could tell their stories and find help on their path to wellness. We wanted to offer a kind of sanctuary where our patients didn’t have to feel the stress of their daily lives and could talk freely about their health and troubled pasts. The only problem was that we — four women, some of us mothers — were beginning to feel a tremendous amount of stress from our own responsibilities: running a busy medical practice, taking care of our children and families, and caring for our individual patients. We were trying, like so many women, to do it all.
As women, many of us have a maternal nurturing response that often puts us in positions where we are trying to care for everyone but ourselves. And some scientists believe this instinct strengthens during times of stress. The reasoning behind this theory stems from women’s evolutionary instincts to protect themselves and their offspring during threatening situations. Forming groups and social networks — known as the “tend and befriend” instinct — proved beneficial to survival of the species in counterbalancing the acute “fight or flight” response.
Modern society doesn’t do us any favors by adding an increasing amount of responsibilities to a woman’s role. We worked so hard to be “liberated,” but the reality for many women is that now we’re just expected to do everything! We simply can’t do it all. My colleagues and I learned first-hand that taking care of ourselves was essential before we could help anyone else. We have to learn to set up boundaries for the sake of our own health and learn the benefits of simply saying no.
Explore all your options — stress management with the Women to Women approach
From my own experience and that of my patients, I’ve learned that untying the knots at the root of chronic stress offers us long-lasting physical and psychological benefits. But understand that this is a highly individualized process. To truly get at the root of what is stressing you out takes a lot of self-exploration and soul-searching. And I can tell you, no two women have the same experience in resolving stress.
In the meantime, you can offset your stress with some self-care fundamentals. These options at the very least diminish the immediate symptoms of stress. They can also help quiet your HPA axis, lessening the negative effects of cortisol on your body.
Here are some basic measures you can adopt as you begin on your path to stress reduction:
•Start with quality nutrition. Caring for your body by eating three balanced meals and two quality snacks each day is one basic way to lessen the stress burden on your body. Cortisol is released when your blood sugar is low, so it’s best to keep your body well fueled with colorful fruits and vegetables, good sources of protein, and high-quality fats. To learn more about how you eat, what you eat, and when you eat affect your stress response, see our article on eating to support your adrenal glands.
•Fill in nutritional gaps with a high-quality multivitamin/mineral complex. In a perfect world we’d gain all the nutrients we need from a healthy diet, but with the advent of industrialized farming our food is not as nutritious as it once was. Taking medical-grade supplements provides your body with all the nutrients and micronutrients it needs to carry out optimal cellular function. And it will help take the burden off of an already over-taxed body.
•Explore relaxation practices. Acupuncture, reiki therapy, yoga, meditation and massage are just some of the many wonderful mind–body methods for reducing stress and tonifying the nervous system. Don’t ever feel guilty about scheduling time in for relaxation — it’s fundamental to balance, whether that’s in your stress hormones or your life as a whole!
If you have reached a point in your life where you are ready to uncover more deep-seated emotional stress, you have many helpful options. In my experience of working with women for over 25 years, I’ve found that resolving the emotional issues of the past is one of the most powerful ways to improve ongoing health issues. Here are some of the best options I know of:
•The Hoffman Quadrinity Process. This involves an eight-day workshop dedicated to profound healing and transforming negative thought patterns, actions and emotions, while working toward the integration of our four fundamental dimensions of being: intellect, emotions, body, and spirit. The Quadrinity Process is a superb way to resolve chronic stress for good — but note that this option requires a higher financial and time commitment than some others.
•The Work” by“ Byron Katie. The Work is a process of inquiry designed to help people keenly identify and question their emotional suffering. Katie offers an informative website, has authored several books, speaks around the world, and conducts a nine-day program she calls “School for The Work,” which teaches you to unlearn the fear-based stories we’ve heard throughout life.
•Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Finding a counselor or psychotherapist you connect with can be the key for some women to work through past emotional stress. My advice here is to be patient. Finding the right fit doesn’t always happen right away, and you may find yourself talking to several therapists before settling on the right person. Cognitive behavioral therapy is another method that can help you hone in on the exact triggers for your stress.
•The Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). The practice of EFT is based on the belief that all negative emotions are a disruption in the body’s energy system. Similar to acupuncture, EFT stimulates energy meridian points by tapping them with your fingertips. One great benefit of this technique is that it can be done anywhere at any time. For more information, read our article on emotional well-being and the Emotional Freedom Technique.
About your health — every little bit helps
Taking steps today to reduce stress in your life has implications even greater than finding happiness and peace — it means you are preventing disease and preserving your health and longevity. With the incidence of stress-related illness and lost years of lives increasing every decade, we absolutely have to take stress seriously. Stress is a reality in our lives, but we don’t have to let it overpower us or prevent us from being our true selves.
I know from experience that taking time and energy to resolve or lessen the stress in your life isn’t easy. But if you do the work, I promise you will regain your sense of perspective and recover your health and wellness. As noted lecturer and author Dr. Joan Borysenko says, “We can’t find the light in our lives until we’ve gone back through the darkness….” I encourage you to find your inner light.