Stress and the Modern Human

Stress can be a hard thing to describe to people, especially if they are one of the few that either (a) handles stress well, or (b) has very little stress in their life.

Most people can do neither, and those that are (b) are known as psychopaths.

We ALL have stress in our life. To say we don’t would be, as they say these days, #FakeNews.

Stress is a silent killer. It causes all kinds of problems physically and mentally, but the thing with stress is that it takes a long time for it to kill you. Often it sneaks up slowly over the course of years. People that report having little to no stress are often the most stressed when tested.

But also, while stress is inevitable for all of us, suffering is not.

Our bodies are built to handle stress. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala surveys the scene and determines your response, be it curling into the fetal position or just “letting it go”.  When the amygdala detects a threat it activates the sympathetic nervous system or SNS. The SNS can raise blood pressure and blood sugar to prepare your body for that stressor being perceived. So, like a chain reaction, the amygdala alerts the hypothalamus, which alerts the pituitary, which tells the adrenal gland to release cortisol.

Cortisol is your friend and your enemy. Acute, short-term release of cortisol is necessary and actually good for you. It increases vigilance, memory functions, and immune functions, and redirects blood flow to the muscles, heart, and brain. Our bodies are designed to accept this release is short bursts and small doses. This is what allowed our ancestors to escape attacks from wild animals. But what has happened these days is the stressors are constant. We no longer have wild animals to worry about sporadically, but we have 8-10 hour jobs and endless lines of creditors calling between the hours of 7:30 AM and 9:00 PM. Because fo this constant barrage of stress, our adrenals are pumping cortisol into our bodies without rest. This is what can kill you. Your blood pressure remains high, your brain on constant alert. Eventually, even the fittest person will succumb.

Chronic stress affects your ability to think also. We all have the part of the brain that keeps us out of danger or subconscious, but when constantly under stress and being pumped with cortisol the ability to reason is effected, allowing you to do crazy things that, in a normal state, you would not do. Did we have road rage incidents in 1960 or 1970? Probably, but I am betting that there were much fewer examples, but now when someone cuts you off in traffic or snags a parking spot, or even cuts in front of the line the instinct is now to “lash out” instead of “letting it go”. This is due to stress building up and preventing self-control from taking over.

It also causes the loss of cognitive control, or the ability to inhibit the drive to seek pleasure. This is why those under the highest amounts of stress, usually the lower socioeconomic classes, are the most likely to become addicted to drugs. It is no shock to learn that those lowest on the socioeconomic scale have the highest rates of disease and of cortisol levels.

Now, this is the bad part. Readers of this blog and listeners to the podcast usually have found us because they are either an athlete or aspire to be one. As stated earlier, our bodies are built to accept short bursts of cortisol to remove us from danger, but what if we elevate our blood flow on a constant basis by engaging in endurance sports? You bombard your body with stress, in this case, both mentally and physically, which releases cortisol on a constant basis through long training sessions and 7+ hour events. This can lead to adrenal fatigue, and that can take a while to recover from fully.

But I am not saying you need to stop. What I am saying is that we need to be aware of these issues, and to find balance in our lives. We cannot work 10-12 hours days in a high-stress job, only to leave and put our bodies through 3-4 hours of high-intensity training sessions and not expect that eventually, our bodies are going to quit on us. Be smart and find that pleasure in your life to counter the stressors. Saying to remove stress is a fool’s errand. It cannot be done, and for me to write a list stating that “these are the highest stress-related activities”, though you can find a few of those online, is all ridiculous because stress is a very personal thing. We all perceive it differently.

Be kind to yourself.

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