Stress-Mechanism for Illness and Aging

Stress—Is our primitive survival mechanism killing us?

Eliminating or at least, managing stress levels is critical in preventing and/or improving all distress and disease.

The stress response is a very natural and primal survival mechanism built into the core of the human brain.  For eons, the stress response has worked automatically and unconsciously to mobilize our innate resources for survival, and it still does today.  Interestingly, the stress response starts in the emotion and memory regulating parts of our brain, so that it isn’t the actual threat, but the perception of threat that triggers the response.  We can’t bypass this, as all the information coming in from our environment through the five senses pass through here first.

When life was simple, the things that stressed us were easily identified, like saber tooth tigers, warring tribes and starvation.  When the threat was gone, the body relaxed back into a natural state of balance that promoted long term health over mere survival.  As life has become more complex, so have the types of things that trigger the survival-prone stress response.

To understand the impact of stress, we must first understand that we are complex beings.  A wonderful intertwined web of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual qualities all working together to make us the unique human being we each are.  These four qualities are inextricably woven together and any imbalance in one affects the other three.  Attempting to compartmentalize or shut off part of ourselves results in imbalance and AUTOMATICALLY triggers our stress response, as it becomes a threat to the integrity of who we are.

In many ways the stress response is the impulse and the energy that keeps human beings moving and evolving, which is the deeper function of survival.  Stressors can come from physical, mental, emotional or spiritual disturbances or imbalances.  Anything from poor sleep to neglect, busy day to financial disaster or just feeling that life has no purpose constitutes a threat to our survival on the level of perception, regardless of how illogical or unconscious the feelings may be.

Because of the complexity and pace of living, compounded by cultural and social programming, we have become stuck in patterns of inertia, often thinking that there is nothing we can do to change ourselves or the world in which we live. Despite the uneasy feelings we sense, we think, “well, that’s just the way it is.”  We ignore the fact that our brains are shifting our chemistry for that “fight or flight” stress response and we just freeze in that “life as usual” mindset.   When we don’t change, our brain hunkers down for a long-term stress response. This is when the body starts destroying itself slowly.

Cortisol is the one of the main hormones involved in the stress response. It shifts the body’s resources from the brain, gut, reproductive and immune systems toward the muscles, cardiovascular and respiratory systems.  It also mobilizes sugar and changes the way insulin works.  Over an extended period of time, it changes the brain in many ways, destroying communication links, decreasing feedback receptor sites and actually shrinking brain tissue.

With all those changes caused by the stress response, it is easy to see how 90% of all doctor visits are attributed to stress.  Long term and unrelenting stress and increased cortisol levels are the foundational malfunction that leads to heart disease, obesity, cancer, autoimmune diseases, susceptibility to illness, anxiety and dementia, just to name some.   Modern medicine can help to treat the conditions caused by stress, but does little to affect the underlying condition that caused the illness in the first place.

Eliminating or at least, managing stress levels is critical in preventing and/or improving all distress and disease.  This is key to shutting off the stress response with its release of cortisol.  There is more and more research in support of Mind/Body techniques and therapies that moderate the stress response.  Practices such as meditation, Yoga, Qi Gong and hypnotherapy, all work to slow the brainwaves into deeper states of relaxation and rejuvenation, tapping into the powerful healing intelligence of the mind.  This state of relaxation and healing uses the nervous system to shift the body back into balance.  But, there are no magic bullets.  Stress management is a lifestyle choice.  Just as exercise must be done regularly or a pill must be taken daily to get the desired effects, so too must we attend to the management of our stress filled lives if we are to become masters of our own lives and claim health and happiness as our true destiny.

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