Originally published April 23 2008
An Overview of How Stress Kills and How to Develop Your StresSkills
by Cindie Leonard
(NaturalNews) In the past twenty years, thanks to modern technology, researchers have been able to scientifically prove that we have definite and distinct, physical responses to our emotions. There are currently thousands of books relating to stress and the toll it takes on the human body and psyche. The following is a synopsis of recent research demonstrating how stress kills and the protective, preventative effects of adapting stress management skills.
Stress is necessary for our survival. If our ancestors did not experience stress, we would not be here now. When a woolly mammoth comes charging at you, it is a very good idea to run. Day to day, common stressors are normal, and we have the hard-wired ability to cope. It is the chronic type of stress that is absolutely toxic; It's outright lethal to our health and well being. It is vitally important that you monitor and manage the stress in your life and to make the commitment to take care of yourself. You will most likely always encounter stress. But, if you are living a balanced life, the way you perceive and react to stress will be healthier.
The Mind/Body Connection
One of the key principles in psychoneuroimmunology (mind/body medicine) is the interrelatedness of the mind and the body. It used to be believed that the mind and body were separate entities, but current research is proving otherwise. I need to keep emphasizing this fact, because when you allow stress to affect your life, you are allowing it to influence every organ, every cell of your body. That is a high price to pay.
"The mind steadfastly refuses to behave locally, as contemporary scientific evidence is beginning to show. We now know, for example, that brain-like tissue is found throughout the body... So, even from the conservative perspective of modern neurochemistry, it is difficult if not impossible to follow a strictly local view of the brain." - Larry Dossey, M.D.
The following experiment is phenomenal. In 1993, under the direction of the United States Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM), scientists conducted an experiment that demonstrated that our cells, even outside of our body, will still respond to our emotions. "White blood cells (leukocytes) scraped from the mouth of a volunteer were centrifuged and placed in a test tube. A probe from a recording polygraph –- a lie (or emotion) detector -– was then inserted into the tube. The donor of the cheek cells was seated in a room separate from his donated cells and shown a television program with many violent scenes. Then the volunteer watched scenes of fighting and killing. The probe from the polygraph detected extreme excitation in the mouth cells even though they were in a room down the hall. Subsequent repeats of this test experiment with donor and cells separated up to fifty miles and up to two days after donation of the cells showed the same results. The donated cells remained energetically and non-locally connected with their donor and seemed to 'remember' where they came from."
Paul Pearsall, Ph.D, author of The Heart's Code: The Findings About Cellular Memories and Their Role in the Mind/Body/Spirit Connection.
Dr. Pearsall's brilliant book explores and illuminates the fascinating and clinically documented stories of transplant patients. For example, one eight-year-old girl received the heart of a ten-year-old girl who was murdered. The girl who received the heart had dreams about the murderer, so vivid that she was able to describe the murderer to police. The time, weapon, clothes he wore, and place were so accurate, the man was convicted upon her testimony.
I site these studies because they demonstrate that our emotions are not just in our mind, they are in every cell of our bodies. Therefore, we must monitor the stress in our lives and honor our innate abilities to heal ourselves. If the heart thinks, the cells remember. The power of your thoughts on your health is profound.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a combination of responses in the body. Stress can be short-term (acute) or chronic. Acute stress is the "fight or flight" response. If a car is careening toward you at a high rate of speed, you will (or should) experience acute stress. This is what can save your life. It is when you experience so many common stressors, such as heavy traffic, noise, money worries, illnesses, relationship problems, rising crime rates, or work frustrations, that stress takes a chronic form. In the short term, stress can be vital. Over time, it turns destructive.
How destructive can stress be on your body? Research has shown that prolonged stress can produce actual tissue changes and organ dysfunction. With the new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) techniques, scientists are able to prove visibly that chronic stress can shrink an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. Researchers have found that the brains of war veterans, as well as women who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, have a marked reduction in the size of their hypothalamus.
Stress also affects your brain by releasing powerful chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (also called adrenaline). The hypothalamic/pituitary-adrenal portion of your brain releases steroid hormones, including the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol affects systems throughout your body, including an increased heart rate.
Your heart, lungs, and circulatory system are influenced by the increased heart rate. Blood flow may increase 300 to 400 percent. Blood pressure increases and breathing becomes rapid. Your mouth and throat may become dry. Skin may become cool and clammy because blood flow is diverted away so it can support the heart and muscle tissues. Even digestive activity shuts down.
Once again, occasional stress is normal. Once you've handled the situation, the stress goes away and you heal from the episode. But, if stressors accumulate over time, eventually the body becomes inefficient at handling even the least amount of stress. The brain, heart, lungs, vessels, and muscles become so chronically over or under activated that they become damaged. It is this sort of stress which may trigger or worsen heart disease, strokes, susceptibility to infection, sleep disturbances, sexual and reproductive dysfunction, memory and learning dysfunction, digestive problems, weight problems, diabetes, pain, and skin disorders.
"Extensive multidisciplinary studies have presented unequivocal evidence that our psychological responses to stress and our perceptions of stress to a considerable extent affect our susceptibility to disease. In active relationship, the immune, neuroendocrine, and nervous systems respond to the brain and psyche. Virtually all illnesses, from the flu to cancer, are influenced for good or bad by our thoughts and feelings." - R. Lloyd, 1990 Healing Brain: A Scientific Reader
Depression, fear, anger, hostility, and other negative emotions depress the immune system. The immune system is our first line of defense against infections, germs, and bacteria. The neurotransmitters that help to protect our immune system are inhibited by stress.
"Severe emotions impair the immune system, while release from panic or despair frequently increase interleukins, vital substances in the immune system that help activate cancer-killing immune cells." - Norman Cousins, 1990
You Can Choose to Manage Stress
You need not be a victim to chronic stress. Stress can be insidious; working its way into our lives before we are aware of the consequences. You can curb this process by being aware of the symptoms and sensations of stress, and employing proven methods to reduce stress. Equally important, you must recognize and remedy situations that trigger the stress in the first place.
First of all, it is crucial that you tap into your own internal wisdom to heal your body of stress and live a life of wellness and vitality. You really do know how to heal yourself of stress-related symptoms. You know that you need balance in your life. You simply need the time and space to access this healing force. You have what it takes to find a more peaceful and pleasurable life.
"Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. We are at our best when we give the doctor within each patient a chance to go to work." - Albert Schweitzer
"It is wise to pay attention to how you view yourself. The internal, critical voice needs to be answered; its distortions refuted. Suppressed emotions need to be identified, owned, expressed, and processed. For example, to be healthy, express rather than repress such intense emotions as anger, rage, and hostility. These emotions, if chronic or unexpressed, cause a surging of hormones and chemicals with consequent increased risk of heart attack, stroke, arterial disease, headaches, and kidney problems. Releasing such patterns of emotional stress results in parallel biochemical unlocking. Identifying emotional roots of illness and making conscious changes in lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and diet result in wellness in body, mind, and spirit." - Christiane Northrup, M.D., 1996
By incorporating techniques for physical, mental, and spiritual health, one can cause physiological changes in the brain. These changes will lead to responses that are positively healing. What are some of these techniques? First of all, you must make the commitment to take care of yourself. Many people have difficulty in doing this, yet it is of utmost importance. If you are not whole and well and happy, what good are you to those you care for? Also, by taking care of yourself and by becoming a calmer soul, you will also be more pleasant to be around. Making this commitment involves first identifying the stressors in your life. Do they involve your family? Work? Relationships outside the family? Financial stress? Time management? Fuzzy boundaries? Legal problems? I suggest that you list the primary stressors in your life and rate their level of severity.
In her book, "Five Weeks to Healing Stress," Valerie O'Hara, Ph.D., suggests the following:
1. Re-framing how you see a situation -- changing your thoughts from awfulizing or catastrophizing to a more neutral perception. For example, changing your inner dialogue from "I can't stand it" to "This is not my preference, but..."
2. Building your resilience to stress by maintaining good health habits, such as sound nutrition and regular exercise.
3. Learning coping skills, such as the relaxation techniques of conscious breathing, muscular relaxation, meditation, and quiet time.
4. Having a strong support system of friends and relatives.
5. Keeping creative time and fun as part of your life.
6. Releasing accumulated stress through stretching exercises and aerobic activities.
7. Improving your self-esteem.
8. Improving your communication skills.
9. Whatever works for you! Star gazing, a picnic, a walk in nature, playing with a pet, a pillow fight, sipping tea by a fire, watching a sunset.
Prayer and Meditation
Research into the value of prayer on the effects of stress and illness are astounding. Dr. Larry Dossey is at the forefront of such research. His studies are real, replicable, and relevant to medicine. Dr. Dossey believes that prayer-based healings are "one of the best kept secrets in medical science."
The medical profession cannot seem to believe some of the recent studies on the power of prayer. Here are some of the most recent findings gathered by Paul Pearsall:
* Among 232 elderly patients undergoing open-heart surgery, those who were deeply religious were more likely to survive the surgery.
* Eleven of twelve studies showed that religious commitment is associated with curtailed drug use.
* Heavy smokers who attend church regularly are four times less likely to have high blood pressure than smokers who do not go to church, prompting one scientist to say, "If you are going to smoke, take your butt to church."
* A survey of 91,909 persons who attended church regularly showed that they had 50 percent fewer deaths from coronary artery disease, 56 percent fewer deaths from emphysema, 74 percent fewer deaths from cirrhosis, and 53 percent fewer suicides.
* A study showed that patients receiving heart by-pass surgery who were prayed for had fewer complications than those who were not prayed for.
Paul Pearsall, Ph.D., The Pleasure Prescription: To Love, To Work, To Play – Life in the Balance, says that the therapeutic value of meditation is profound. Meditation elicits a relaxation response that promotes deep relaxation. Even brain waves are affected, increasing alpha activity -- which is associated with calmness. Hans Selye, a pioneer in stress research, states that meditation and stress are mirror opposites. Meditation takes you away from the wear and tear of stress and gives you a complete rest.
"What matters is that for a time one be inwardly attentive." - Anne Morrow Lindbergh
This is a process of tensing and relaxing all of your muscles. You begin by tensing the muscles in your feet, holding for a few seconds, then focusing on letting go. You gradually move up your body, all the way to your face. A true tension melter.
Yoga, to the uninitiated may seem strangely mysterious, yet is mostly a system of physical and mental exercises designed to balance and unite body and mind. There are many different paths to a yoga practice. Some forms of yoga may seem quite out of the ordinary. Respect your individual preferences. I recommend that you experience a variety of classes, teachers, and styles of yoga. Trust yourself to choose what is right for you. I also recommend that you try different yoga videos, which will allow you to practice at your own level in the privacy of your home. The benefits of yoga are too many for this little paper. I highly recommend incorporating the practice of yoga into your life. You will discover the benefits in a very short amount of time, perhaps after your first session.
"Hatha yoga is based on the principle that changes in consciousness can be brought about by setting in motion currents of certain kinds of subtler forces in the physical body." - I.K. Taimini
"Awareness changes how we physically move. As we become more fluid and resilient so do the mental, emotional, and spiritual movements of our lives." - Emile Conrad Da'oud
Recent research (Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia) demonstrated how just one session of yoga can lower blood levels of cortisol (a stress hormone). Researchers measured the levels of cortisol in men and women before and after they practiced yoga, then again before and after they sat quietly while reading or writing. After the yoga sessions, cortisol levels dropped significantly. There was no significant drop after the resting sessions. More proof that yoga is a therapeutic tool.
In short, yoga feels fantastic. As we must keep our minds in tune, so too our bodies. Yoga calms the central nervous system, eases tension, lowers stress, tones muscles and joints, improves your metabolism, stimulates digestion, and enhances flexibility and vitality.
One of the greatest lessons I've learned from yoga is deep breathing. I use this all of the time... in traffic, while on hold on the telephone, anytime you begin to feel aggravation. Learn this method of breathing, it will help you through stressful situations.
1. Breathe with the abdomen. Allow your belly to expand as you inhale, both to the front and to the sides. Make a really big belly. The bigger the better. So many of us have over trained ourselves to hold in our stomachs that we've lost the gift of a full and complete breath. As you exhale, bring your navel toward your spine by contracting your lower abdominal muscles. This not only helps complete the exhalation, it is also an abdominal strengthening exercise.
2. Bring your attention to your breathing, keeping it long and even. Make sure that the inhalations and exhalations are of the same length. I like to breathe in to the count of eight, hold to the count of four, and breathe out to the count of eight.
3. Breathe in and out through your nose. This is a healthy practice, as your nose is lined with tiny hairs, which act as natural filters of pollution, dust, etc.
"Breath is aligned to both body and mind and it alone is the tool which can bring them both together, illuminating both and bringing both peace and calm." - Thich Nhat Hanh
Guided imagery will allow you to reach a profoundly healthy, healing, relaxed state in just minutes. Many hospitals now offer the service of guided imagery to help patients with surgery, chemotherapy, and other painful, or anxiety producing procedures.
What is hypnosis? Hypnosis is an effective and safe method that will allow you to easily and predictably make the changes you desire in your life. Becoming more peaceful, calm, and serene is entirely possible with hypnosis.
In a hypnotic trance you will be in a state of heightened suggestibility. Because of the deepened sense of relaxation that you will feel physically, your conscious mind will also relax. This relaxed state will allow your subconscious mind to receive and process suggestions that can literally reprogram the way you react to stress.
Hypnosis is a profoundly effective therapeutic tool –- which is never dangerous to you. All of the suggestions are your own, and the healing you receive comes from within. Hypnotherapy can promote relaxation of both mind and body and can change behavior patterns that tend to aggravate stress.
Norman Cousins calls laughter "internal jogging." Cousins had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, an experience that had led him to question Western medicine. Cousins found the treatments suggested by his doctors to be totally lacking, so he checked himself out of the hospital and checked into a hotel. From here on, he literally laughed himself back to health. He immersed himself in only funny movies and television shows. He enjoyed every one of the Charlie Chaplin movies, and watched "Candid Camera" episodes until his sides hurt, laughing. His illness disappeared. From this experience, he wrote an enlightening book, "Anatomy of an Illness." Cousins highlights scores of studies proving the health benefits of laughter and humor.
Saving the Best for Last
The following is an excerpt from one of the most powerful books I have read regarding emotions and the body. Candace Pert has focused a large part of her career exploring the relationship between our emotions and our physical health. From the phenomenal book, "Molecules of Emotion," By Candace Pert, Ph.D:
"We must take responsibility for the way we feel. The notion that others can make us feel good or bad is untrue. Consciously, or more frequently unconsciously, we are choosing how we feel at every single moment. The external world is in so many ways a mirror of our beliefs and expectations. Why we feel the way we feel is the result of the symphony and harmony of our own molecules of emotion that affect every aspect of our physiology, producing blissful good health, or miserable disease."
We have the hubris to think that just because we invented electric light bulbs, we can keep any hours we want. But neuropeptide informational substances link our biological clocks to the motions of the planet, which is why your quality of sleep -- and wakefulness -- is likely to improve the more closely your retiring and your rising are linked to darkness and daylight. If you get to sleep between 10 and 11 P.M., most of you will be able to wake up naturally and rested with the sunrise, if not before.
Meditation practiced early morning and early evening, routinely, even religiously, is, I believe, the single quickest, easiest, shortest, and cheapest route to feeling good, which means being in sync with your natural feelings.
The early morning is a great time to enjoy, to consciously envision a wonderful day. It's a great time for the conscious mind to reenter the body with bodyplay (exercise sounds dreary), which may be gentle stretching or yoga one day, a brisk walk with dancing or a run to break a sweat the next. See how you feel before you decide. It seems natural -- what the body was designed to do -- to move a bit on arising, before eating or climbing into a car. Our foremothers and forefathers would almost certainly have started their days with movement.
For those of you interested in weight loss, another reason to get moving early on is that we are designed to be able to turn on the fat-burning neuropeptide circuitry in our bodyminds with just twenty minutes of mild aerobic exercise at the beginning of the day. Research by exercise physiologists has shown that after twenty minutes of elevated heartbeat and the deeper, more frequent breathing that naturally comes with it, our bodyminds enter a smooth, fat-burning mode that lasts for hours. The alert and calm feeling that settles in after an initial feeling of exhilaration usually goes hand in hand with a reduced appetite.
Spend some time in nature every day, longer on days off. Being outside is being in nature regardless of whether you're in a forest, at the beach, or downtown in a large city. Look at the sky! Even cities have skies over them. Bad weather is no excuse -- invest in warm clothes, good shoes, and a waterproof outer layer.
When to eat is as important as what you eat. Don't starve yourself all day and eat late. In fact, your biggest food intake should be your midday meal, as it is in every nonindustrial culture, and as it used to be in our own. Eating at midday allows the food plenty of time to be completely and wholesomely digested before you retire for the evening. It also means that the molecules of nutrition will be carried to sites in the bodymind where they will reinforce conscious, vigorous, waking activity rather than being deposited as fat, which happens more readily when we eat too late. If you've never observed such a schedule, you would be amazed at the jolt of mental and physical energy you will feel -- which is the way you are supposed to feel.
Avoid exogenous ligands that perturb the psychosomatic network so much that they warp its smooth information flow, producing "stuck" information circuits that prevent you from experiencing your full repertoire of potential experiences, and instead cultivate feedback loops that will restore and maintain your natural bliss. Translation: To feel as good as possible all of the time, avoid doing drugs, legal or illegal. Question any chronic prescription: If you have to have it, make sure you are taking the lowest possible dose that does the job. Under the supervision of your doctor or other medical consultant, consider taking a "drug holiday" every once in a while to see if you really still need that sleeping pill, antidepressant, antiulcer, or high blood pressure medication. Experience how amazingly responsive and resilient, lively and blissful the natural undrugged state is. Being drug-free allows your system to focus on healing your own bodymind rather than compensating for drug-induced alterations and expending bodymind effort on detoxifying and excreting drugs.
Think of sugar as a drug with chronic effects right up there with more acknowledged "drugs of abuse." Sucrose, the white powder isolated from acres of green plants (sugarcane or sugar beets) turns into glucose, a key metabolic regulator of your bodymind, which acts on glucose receptors to control the release of insulin and numerous other neuropeptides from the pancreas, drastically altering how we feel -- sluggish or peppy, low or high -- and how we metabolize our food. Satisfy sweet cravings with fruit, which has a different kind of sugar, fructose, which less readily causes the release of insulin. Refined white sugar changes the profile of peptides released from the pancreas (in addition to insulin), which results in a sluggish, fat-storing mode. In general, work on exploring the impact of what you eat on the way you feel.
Drink eight glasses of unchlorinated water every day. So often we eat when we're really thirsty rather than hungry. Our internal signals have gotten confused because we evolved eating whole, natural foods (fruits and vegetables), which have a much higher water content than our current diets of chips and dips and numerous other packaged, processed foods and junkstuffs.
Aim for emotional wholeness. When you're upset or feeling sick, try to get to the bottom of your feelings. Figure out what's really eating you. Always tell the truth to yourself. Find appropriate, satisfying ways to express your emotions. And if such a prescription seems too challenging, seek professional help to feel better. I believe the alternative or complementary therapies are a form of professional help much less likely to do harm and more likely to do good than conventional approaches. They work by shifting our natural balance of internal chemicals around, so we can feel as good as possible. They are often particularly helpful for the alleviation of many chronic maladies that currently have no good medical solutions.
Consciously and lovingly acknowledge each family member before sleep. That is, say goodnight. Don't program your bodymind with images of death, destruction, and the bizarre before retiring. Translation: Never wind down with the nightly news. Instead, try a book, a relaxing hobby, a hot bath, or even light housework.
Last, but definitely not least, health is much more than the absence of illness. Live in an unselfish way that promotes a feeling of belonging, loving kindness, and forgiveness. Living like this promotes a state of spiritual bliss that truly helps to prevent illness. Wellness is trusting in the ability and desire of your bodymind to heal and improve itself given half a chance. Take responsibility for your own health -- and illness. Delete phrases like, "My doctor won't let me..." or, "My doctor says I have (name of condition), and there is really nothing I can do" from your speech and thought patterns. Avoid unscientific beliefs about your need for medications and operations."
Wishing you vibrant health, a joyful spirit, and a delicious life.
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Breathnach, S. B. 1995. Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. New York: Warner Books
Cousins, N. 1981. Anatomy of an Illness. New York: Bantam
Cousins, N. 1989. Biology of Hope. New York: Dutton
Cummings, N. A. 1991. "The Somatizing Patient." In Psychotherapy in Managed Health Care, By C. Austad. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
Dossey, L. 1995. "Healing Happens." Utne Reader, no.71 (Sept/Oct)
Klopfer, B. 1957. "Psychological Variables in Human Cancer." Journal of Projective Techniques. 21:331-40.
Miller, E. 1997. Deep Healing: The Essence of Mind/Body Medicine. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House
Northrup, C. 1996. "When Women Listen to Their Bodies." Body, Mind, Spirit 15, no. 1 (Dec/Jan)
Northrup. C. 1994. Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. New York: Bantam
O'Hara, V. 1996. Five Weeks to Healing Stress: The Wellness Option. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications
Pearsall, P. 1998. The Heart's Code. New York: Random House
Pearsall, P. 1996. The Pleasure Principle. Alameda, CA: Hunter House
Pert, C. 1997. Molecules of Emotion. New York: Touchstone
Selye, H. 1977. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill
About the authorCindie Leonard has a Master's degree in Psychology and specializes in research (namely psychoneuroimmunology), enjoys savoring time with family and friends, spoiling her pets, travel, beaches, cavorting around San Diego, volunteering at Torrey Pines State Reserve, and working on perfecting the art of "il dolce far niente." http://www.cindieleonard.com
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