Stress. We’ve been told we should reduce it, manage it, avoid it. But what exactly is it and why is it so terrible?
The first thing we have to understand is that while society and technology have been evolving faster and faster, our bodies are still pretty much the same as they were 10,000 years ago. A few minor things have changed – for example, we’re taller on average and many of us can digest lactose. But for the most part, we are designed to deal with a world that is gone – at least those of us here in the Modern World.
Usually when people talk about stress they say it’s the “fight or flight response”. This conjures images of ancient man encountering a lion or wooly mammoth. But stress came in more ways than that for our ancestors. Stress was also negotiating hazardous terrain like bog-filled moors or high cliffs. Stress was being caught in the open during a storm. Stress was going out to hunt for game and then not catching anything.
In all of these cases, the body and the mind have to deal with an immediate problem that requires use of the muscles and the senses . You might have to run fast or you might have to slow down and pay really close attention. You might have to enter unknown territory to find your dinner.
The body’s response to a red alert is to make some changes that will give you every advantage. The adrenals release cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart rate and respiration increase sending lots of oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. Your senses become acute and you are alert to every little change. And like the Captain of the Enterprise shutting down life support on unoccupied decks, the body will slow or shut down any activity that is not necessary, digestion for example, until the ordeal is over so that maximum energy is available for action. Once it is over, everything returns to normal and interrupted processes can resume.
For our ancestors this system worked great because it helped them survive. But our lives are very different. We have so many more things that cause stress. Commuting to work is a giant source of stress. Noise is stress. Worrying about job security or confronting co-workers or customers is stress. Keeping up with the Joneses is definitely stress.
While most of our stresses are not life-threatening they are constant. They don’t stop. This means that the body is repeatedly going through the stress response. Imagine, if you will, being a crew member on a star ship that is almost always on red alert. The lights are dimmed, the alarm is going off, crew people are running around, everyone is on edge, and the Captain is barking orders. Eventually you would probably start to go a bit nuts. You’d consider telling the Captain where he can put his orders and simply hiding out in your quarters or running through the corridors waving your rapier around.
This is how the cells and organs of your body feel if they spend most of their time under stress. Your nervous system is overstimulated, your digestion is poor and your adrenals exhausted. Your digestion is where you begin – you aren’t really what you eat, you are what you digest and absorb. Poor absorption means malnutrition and weakness in all organ systems. The adrenals are our power center and when they are exhausted you may have fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, poor concentration, PMS, and low immune function. To go back to our metaphor, your starship is now drifting and a sitting duck for any enemy that might show up.
Now you know why everyone is going on about stress and why should avoid it. In our next episode we will look at some ways to reduce your stress and keep your starship crew happy and healthy.