Stress is one of modern day peoples’ worst enemies. It causes anything from high blood pressure and upset stomach to stroke and cancer.
Most of us are under some kind of stress and feel the effects from time to time. But the fact is, the worst kind of stress is the stress we’re not aware of: The hidden stress. This is really the stress that causes most health problems.
I’ve often been criticized for how big an emphasis I put on stress (especially when lowering blood pressure) and for my opinion that most diseases can be drastically improved by decreasing stress levels.
That’s why today, I’m explaining exactly what stress is, how it makes us sick and what we can do about it. It’s a big issue, so it’s a pretty long article.
I’m sure some of you will love this article others will chew me up. Either way, please leave your comments at the end…
Before we go any further, let me first clarify that stress is our friend. We need the stress reaction to survive, to grow as persons and reach our goals.
What Happens When We’re Stressed?
When we’re faced with danger or challenge, stress-related hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, GH and norepinephrine are released. These hormones act to trigger all necessary body functions to either fight or flee with the most energy possible:
- All available energy is sent to the brain and muscles
- Heart rate is increased
- Blood pressure rises
Energy is drawn from other parts of the body that are temporarily not necessary for fighting and fleeing:
- Digestion process is shut off
- Reproduction process is shut off (testosterones and estrogen production)
- Growth hormone production is shut off
- Immunity system is shut down
You could compare this to a small village faced with war. All the solders are pushed out and armed up with the most intensity possible. They’re ready to fight with all the energy it takes.
As the opposite army approaches, the people are not sitting down to eat (digestion system), they’re not slipping into the bedroom to make love (reproduction system) or the gym to work out (growth hormone). Nor are they going into the hospital for wart removals (immune system). These functions are not essential to fight off the enemy.
…when you experience stress, your body prepares for war!
Those who claim they’re never stressed are dead wrong because we all have stress responses several times per day; whether it’s fighting a boss, running after a bus or dropping a dish. All these things release stress hormones that trigger stress-related symptoms.
The problem with intense stress responses is that once the hormones are released, they can take more than 72 hours to be absorbed by the body’s filters and leave our system. The whole time, digestion and immune system is at low function and energy resources are being used up.
Have you ever had “one of those days” or “one of those weeks?” Everything seems to be going wrong and at the end of the week you feel like a nervous wreck? The answer may lie in the cumulating effects of stress hormones. You’re not only loaded with the stress of what’s happening in the moment, you’re still processing the stress hormones from things that happened two days ago.
Another problem with long lasting stress is the way body prioritizes. The first stress hormone the body releases is Adrenalin. This is the power booster that makes sure you can quickly take care of the task at hand. It doesn’t suppress anything, but increases the energy to the muscles and brain. You feel strong and sharp both physically and mentally.
You need to catch a bus and see that it’s about to leave, so the stress response releases adrenalin that gives you the boost to run after and catch the bus. Once on the bus, no more adrenalin is produced and you feel great while the rest of the adrenalin is being absorbed by your body, which takes a relatively short time.
Now if the adrenalin is not enough to get the task done, next line in defense is releasing cortisol. This hormone is not nearly as pleasurable as adrenalin (you’ve never heard of cortisol rush). It’s more suppressing and shuts down all unnecessary body functions such as digestion and reproduction.
Cortisol has several functions that are not always related to stress. Its main function is to increase blood sugar level in the body. It does this by increasing blood sugar release and by inhibiting blood sugar absorption by muscles and brain cells.
Because cortisol slows down blood and energy delivery to the brain, you may experience confusion and memory loss once the adrenalin wears off and cortisol takes over. Your body is preparing for a long battle where fueling the body with energy (blood sugar) is the most important task.
To continue with the example above, if you miss the bus, cortisol kicks in. It prepares you for maybe a long walk home or long wait at a cold bus stop. With less brain power, you now may begin worrying about not making it home. You may forget about details and not think sharply about other possibilities (take a taxi, walk two blocks to different bus stop etc).
Cortisol is the hormone that stays the longest in the body after the initial threat has left. This is also a hormone closely related to depression, chronic stress, long lasting high blood pressure, memory loss (Alzheimers) and pretty much any other chronic diseases. It keeps you in an intense situation while dealing with the stressful event long after it’s over.
Long term effects of excessive cortisol release are even more dramatic:
- It plays a big role in causing type 2 diabetes by increasing blood sugar levels. Constantly high blood sugar will also lead to obesity and prevent you from losing weight. It also reduces bone production so it may trigger you into thinking you’re losing weight when indeed you’re only losing bone mass.
- Inhibiting the immune system, especially a healthy inflammation response, you’re wide open to various kinds of diseases. Maybe even more important in the long haul, cortisol increases production of free radicals. Unchecked, this leads to an unhealthy inflammation cycle and causes arthritis.
- A long-lasting high cortisol level reduces blood delivery up to the brain. This has been shown to cause memory loss and may be the main cause of Alzheimers. Most seriously, cortisol has been proven to reduce the size of the hippocampus, which actually monitors the cortisol level. This leads to increased levels of cortisol and a deadly health cycle has begun.
- When the digestion system shuts down, various obvious health problems arise. This is the reason so many people experience acid reflux when they’re stressed.
These are only a few examples of the devastating effects of chronic negative stress input and excessive cortisol levels.
When we find ourselves trapped in stressful situations we don’t feel we’ve much control over, we deal with it using the freeze response. We play dead. This includes, among other things, shallow breathing, less mobility and tense muscles. This behavior adds on other health problems with less oxygen delivery throughout the body.
There are many other stress hormones that have similar or other devastating health effects. I focus on cortisol in this article because it’s probably the most dangerous stress hormone and also it takes the longest to leave your system.
Now that we’ve learned how devastatingly dangerous and long lasting stress can be, I want to bring up the main point of this article and a question that many of readers have asked me:
“What If I’m Not Stressed- Why Do I Have High Blood Pressure?”
More and more studies are coming out showing exactly how much stress affects our lives, and often without us being aware of it.
If we experience stressful situations but have the feeling we’re somewhat in control, it doesn’t affect us in the same way as long lasting stressful situations where we feel trapped and out of control.
Most of us have at some point had an intense argument with our partners. A screaming fight, only to make up with the same intensity a few minutes later. Obviously the reproduction system wasn’t negatively affected by this stressful situation
But then we have money worries, long lasting health problems, relationships steadily going worse over a period of time and difficulties in work. In all these situations we feel somewhat impotent. Then we have a situation where we can do absolutely nothing to stop or correct, such as death of a loved one. We may feel the fight will never be over and that the task may get the better of us. These are situations where cortisol steadily builds up in our system.
But even in these situations we have awareness of what the problem is. We know what we have to fight and we know that if we succeed, the stress will leave us.
I believe the worst kind of stress is the effect of things we’re not aware of. These are often things connected to our ancient/animal brain. We’ve consciously become used to these things although our nervous system still reacts like it did 5000 years ago.
Let me give you an example…
Recent studies have shown that stress hormones are extremely sensitive to noise. From nature, we’re keen to take loud noise as sign of danger. Anything from the crack of a falling tree or someone screaming are ancient stress triggers. More recently, of course, car sounds, bombs and gun shots replace those auditory responses. In today’s world, we’re being bombarded by loud noise that still triggers our stress response.
Repeated studies have shown that every day noise (even traffic noise for people who have lived in cities all their lives) can drastically trigger stress hormone release. Unbelievably, even noise lower than the frequency the human ear can consciously hear, trigger great stress responses.
So if you don’t feel like there is anything you’re stressed about but still have high blood pressure (or other stress symptoms), look for the noise around you. Do you live close to or frequently enter loud traffic zones? Is the refrigerator in your home loud? Are there other noises that you can eliminate?
In the same way, normal day to day things like heavy traffic and normal city life can overload our senses with stimuli that cause stress reactions. Again, this is true even for people who have lived in this environment their whole lives.
TV news of traumatic events is another thing that loads audience with indirect stress. Several studies have shown that people who watch more negative news have a much higher level of stress hormone than those who watch less.
I’ve often experienced this myself after traveling for a few weeks or months to places with limited availability of news and media. Turning on CNN or FOX, within minutes I feel a knot in my stomach and negative thoughts running through my mind. It’s so clear if you take a break from news for even a short period of time.
But headlines are not the only TV broadcast that can cause stress reactions. Watching movies and TV shows, especially violent or stressful ones, can add to stress level just like the audience was living the movie themselves.
You see that in all the examples above, people are stressed out because of hidden stress factors they might have very little control over. You can’t shut down the street noise or change the content of the news or TV shows. These things all overload your senses like a predator ready to attack.
Some video games probably have similar effects. Surprisingly, however, at least one study has indicated that playing violent computer games after being in a stressful situation, may help relieve stress symptoms. I believe this is because it puts the audience in control. Even if the violent noise is there, at least you know whom you’re fighting and have the chance to win (unless, in my experience, you’re playing against a 6 year old where you’ll most likely lose).
Each stress factor, whether conscious or unconscious, releases some amount of stress hormone. Usually we’ve no problem handling this. After all, our system has a purpose by doing this. Chronic stress (again whether conscious or unconscious) that causes high blood pressure and other diseases happens when these stress factors accumulate over a period of time and we don’t get any break.
What’s even worse, stress causes more stress. Since we don’t think clearly when we suffer long lasting stress, we’re consumed by negative and hopeless thoughts that add to the stress level.
Even more importantly, stress very often causes insomnia, which again leads to various health problems and increased stress levels.
So What Can We Do To Eliminate Stress?
Fortunately, reducing stress and inhibiting all the health problems that follow is not that big of a task if you put your mind to it.
The hardest thing is to make the conscious decision to eliminate stress. Remember that your body is putting you in stress reaction mode because it believes it’s essential for your survival. Thinking about eliminating stress reactions, you may unconsciously feel like you’re risking your own life.
After all, if your body senses that the traffic noise is equal to a roar of a lion, then it will feel like you’re committing suicide by indicating that you just want to relax and eliminate the stress hormone release in this situation.
The first thing to do is to pay attention to the things around you that may be causing unconscious or conscious stress reaction. Think of how a caveman would react to any situation that you’re in. If you think he’d panic, then most likely your body is panicking on some level. Just by being aware of the inner conflict, you’ll eliminate a lot of it.
Another thing I often tell my client is to do something they’re good at. This puts you in control of the situation, which makes you feel confident and stops the release of stress hormones. Make a list of 10 things you’re really good at and spend at least an hour per day on one of those things. The more active role you play, the better. That is, being good at playing music is better than being good at listening to music.
Which brings us to the noise around us. Take the time to replace all the loud noise with some subdued ones. Relaxation or classical music is very good. Nature noises such as river, rain, waterfall, etc., have been shown to create very relaxing responses. If you’re working and don’t have to pay attention to the things around you, put on the headphones and eliminate all the ambient sounds.
Diet is also very important. Since cortisol’s main purpose is to regulate blood sugar levels in the body, maintaining healthy levels of blood sugar at all times is very important. You do this simply by eating good, healthy food and avoid the spikes in blood sugar that come when you eat too much sugar, flour or other unhealthy carbohydrates.
Finally, daily workouts are extremely beneficial for stress management. No need to overdo it. Exhausting the body will actually cause cortisol release since the blood sugar level drops. A 20-minute brisk walk two to three times a day is ideal.
All these techniques will help reduce the production of stress hormones. You’ll feel immediate relief, although the real benefits happen by applying this on daily basis. Remember that it can take 72 hours for your body to eliminate most of the cortisol from your system.
The most effective stress elimination techniques I’ve found are in my High Blood Pressure Exercise Program. These exercises go way beyond stress relief, actually. They give the body something I call a “Focused Break.” You can learn more about these simple exercises to lower blood pressure naturally here…
Many people who suffer stress also suffer insomnia. That’s why I created the insomnia program that reduces the stress response, as well as trains the brain to fall asleep. Learn more about the insomnia program here…
This article covered a wide range of issues regarding stress. Please tell me what you think by leaving comments below.