Living in this era of explosive stimulation, global expansion, hyper-driven success mentality, do-ing culture, you are extremely likely to have experienced stress, probably more often than you would like. The medical/biological term for stress was borrowed from physics. Its original meaning was, “ Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.” Today we use it commonly from a physical and psychological perspective and is defined as an organism’s response to environmental pressure.  There is real physical stress such as extreme cold, sleep deprivation, starvation, an acute accident, etc. (in a past era, think- being chased by a lion). However, stress also results from what we perceive is more than what we are capable of handling, threatening our sense of ease and equilibrium and is therefore linked to our personality and perception.

Unfortunately, whether the stress is physical or psychological, the stress response in our organism is the same. And, unlike an occasional lion chase, for which our physiological response evolved around, these psychological stressors happen all the time. This constant bombardment of stress, whether physical, psychological or imagined causes our bodies to go through a complex stress response, which in turn is causing havoc on our health and contributing to: cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders, reduction to our immune systems, digestion problems…to name just a few. A likely reason for this is that this second form of stress, perceived stress is much more common today, chronic, and even day to day for some. Whoa Nelly! But, before you start to feel stressed from reading this article, on a positive note, psychological stress is also easier to work with and more manageable.  In the following pages, I will break down the stress response in the body and how it is compromising our health, but also leave you with some ways to strengthen the nervous system, higher your own threshold for stress and radically change your health and well being.

For myself, in healing through a decade long chronic condition, I recall vividly that a key aspect of healing came from learning to accept the physical stress of my illness without adding the second blow of psychological stress. When this happened the overall intensity of the condition noticeably lessoned. I began to see how much the psychological stress was contributing to the illness…the incessant worrying about it, anger, anticipation and dread of the disease.  As I began to meditate, a real-time acceptance of the condition developed and along with other ayurvedic health regimes, initiated an upwards spiral towards health. It began as shorter periods of illness with less intensity. Gradually my chronic condition abated.

What happens to the body when we experience stress?

Briefly, our brain perceives a stressful event and the the two main players are released into our system, epinephrine (or adrenaline) and the glucocorticoid, cortisol. the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated to release epinephrine while the hypothalamus secretes an array of releasing hormones. Subsequently our adrenal glands are triggered to release cortisol. Epinephrine causes that excitement or “rush” but can also make you feel anxious and jittery and has a relatively short duration in the body following the stressful event. Cortisol, a glucocorticoid is secreted from the adrenal cortex and is responsible for modulating energy. It can linger in the body for minutes and up to hours. This response evolved to help us in the stressful event of a lion chase so these hormones will mobilize blood flow to the extremities so that we can move our bodies. Cortisol increases heart rate and blood pressure all so that we can get out of harms way quickly. In addition, cortisol will get us that energy we need quickly and mobilize fats, proteins and sugars into the blood stream. However, all of this revving up of the system does not come cheaply and has a degenerating effect on the system.

The effect on the heart and circulation:

Turning up the heart into a higher gear has a cost to the cardiovascular system. The sympathetic nervous system causes veins to constrict and harden. This causes the returning blood flow to have more force and increases blood pressure. Now this is great if you are actually being chased by a lion and all this increased blood flow and pressure is metabolically matched up by exercise, but if you are just sitting around stressing over a deadline, you end up increasing your odds for cardiovascular disease. The first thing that can happen is chronically elevated blood pressure. This is a fairly easy link to see; chronic stress response leads to chronic elevated blood pressure. Subsequently with high blood pressure you are increasing the force of blood moving through even the small vessels, which have to work harder to regulate this increased blood flow. These small vessels respond by building a larger layer of muscle onto their walls which in turn causes the vessels to be even more rigid. This rigidity causes more resistance and again increases blood pressure, which keeps the cycle escalating.  Hypertension also can begin to damage the vessels themselves causing little tears that stimulate an anti-inflammatory response which aggregates or clumps up at the site. In addition, epinephrine will make the blood more viscous, causing clumping or aggregates of platelets. Add to this the circulating fat, glucose and “bad” cholesterol that has been mobilized into the system by cortisol and you have yourself a jam of fibrous gunk, commonly known as atherosclerosis. Continued high blood pressure on top of that is more likely to tear some of that plaque loose-a thrombus, which when mobilized to smaller vessels near the heart can block an artery completely, causing a heart attack or near the brain and you wind up with a stroke.

Effect on our immunity

When the body is in an emergency or perceived one, it makes sense to cut back on the demanding functions of the body. This means that immunity and reproductive function are also inhibited by stress. This has been documented well through looking at the thymus gland. Glucocorticoids will shrink the thymus gland. A smaller thymus is directly linked to higher glucocorticoids and it is in the thymus that new lymphocytes (white blood cells) are produced. Glucocorticoids inhibit other immunity related messengers as well as make circulating lymphocytes less responsive to infections. Prolonged stress can lead to chronic immune suppression and interestingly, autoimmune in which the body never gets back to equilibrium and loses the ability to fully turn off immune function.

Effect on Digestion and metabolism

Again, when we are faced with an emergency situation, we do not want to waste energy on energetically expensive functions. So first off, digestion is inhibited. Furthermore, psychological stress has been shown to significantly alter the gastrointestinal microbiota of rats, rhesus monkeys, and humans. (US national institute of health) If stress continues, the body will cut back on producing the necessary acids we need to digest our complex foods and subsequently the protective layer it builds to protect the stomach walls. Finally, the stressful period ends, the acids are once again secreted and you are left with an unprotected mucous layer. This may cause hyperacidity, possibly leading to ulcers.

Now what happens to the body in response to the fats, glucose and amino acids that are quickly mobilized into our blood stream? How is our metabolism affected? Firstly, there is an inefficiency in this constant shuttling of energy in and out of the blood stream. All of this breakdown of sugar, amino acids and fats takes energy and “every time you store energy away from circulation and then return it, you lose a fair chunk of the potential energy.” Sapolsky. Therefore a likely first symptom, is a general feeling of fatigue.

Also, during stress, you increase LDL-cholesterol (the bad type) and decrease HDL (the good kind).

Amino acids are mobilized by breaking down protein in the muscle, causing the degradation of muscle tissue over prolonged and chronic stress.

Next, we see that all of this mobilization of glucose increases our risk of type 2 diabetes.   During stress, cortisol acts on the fat cells to make them less sensitive to insulin, insuring that we have enough sugar in the blood to run away from that nonexistent lion again. We then can’t absorb glucose into the tissues efficiently leaving us with high blood sugar.

On top of all this, glucocorticoids increase appetite and belly fat.  Remember the stress response evolved in the case of physical stress so once the survival run had happened the body would quickly crave sugar and simple carbs to replenish the supply. But this occurs even without the real physical activity, leading to blood sugar-insulin roller coasters. In addition the body has another response that says, after that mad dash, we should store up energy to recover. What this means it that the body stores fat quickly following the stressor, but not just any fat. It seems the body prefers to store it in the abdominal area, forming the “apple” shaped body because fat released from the abdomen is sent to the liver and broken down into glucose. This is not turning out to be the fruit of choice for a body shape. As we can see from the stress response, this higher waist to hip ratio is associated with a higher risk of metabolic and cardiovascular disease.

Stress also effects our libido, reproductive function, sleep, growth, brain function, depression…but by now I think you are getting the picture.

Ayurvedic Approach

From the ayurveda perspective, believed to be the oldest healing system still in practice, it is understood that depletion of the nervous system causes disease. The nervous system is considered to have the qualities of space and air which in Ayurveda is called the vata principle. Vata controls all involuntary movement within the body and cells and it is commonly understood in Ayurveda that most disease originates with vata imbalance. How this vata imbalance leads to disease, can be explained by the connection between stress, digestion and disease in the ayurvedic system. Ayurveda elegantly describes The 8 tissues of the body as sequentially remade and nourished from food and their metabolized constituents. Therefore, when food is not properly digested, because of the stress response described previously, over time we will suffer a breakdown in one or more of the body tissues. The good news is, We can effectively change our stress levels with simple lifestyle habits. 

No matter how simple and easeful we try to create our lives, if our nervous system is out of balance, we will find something to be stressed about even if its over which tile to pick for a bathroom make over. Ayurveda looks at this holistically. Balance the vata (air and space principal) and you will nourish the nervous system which will allow a greater capacity to handle stress, leading to better digestion, better tissue development and healing capacity.

According to Ayurveda, when you bring into your system the opposite qualities as the disturbed elements, you will restore allostasis. In this case we are talking about the qualities of vata, air and space, which have the qualities: light, dry, cold and mobile.

A brief look at this balancing act follows: 

We create routine and stability to balance the mobile quality.

We slow down, way down. Taking in less stimuli allows us to rejuvenate the nervous system
We add warm, primarily cooked foods to balance the cold quality
We have good quality fats and proteins in our diet to balance the dry and light qualities
We add herbal oils to skin through abhyanga massage to balance the dry quality.
Most importantly, we have in place daily meditation practices that calm the nervous system and change the way we perceive potential stressors.

A Healthy Response to Stress

We cannot simply remove all stress sources in our lives. We can, however change our relationship to these stressors. This is the key to living with less stress and it is brought about by mindfulness through meditation practices.

As it turns out cortisol is not inherently bad. In truth, we need some cortisol to function. It is needed to balance energy stores following a stressful event. When we are no longer able to secrete glucocorticoids, a condition called Addison’s disease ensues, in which the body goes into shock following stress. Depression can be caused by a prolonged period of stress that causes the brain to protect itself against the damaging effects of cortisol creating a flatlining effect. In addition, chronic fatigue can be a result of perpetual low levels of cortisol. A healthy cortisol level is one that can fluctuate easily. “Many stress psychologists believe that it is our degree of cortisol variability that indicates a healthy stress response: neither high cortisol or low cortisol, but a cortisol level that fluctuates normally in response to stress and relaxation.” -Talbott. Ideally what we want is this malleable flux of cortisol. We want our bodies to respond to stress, exercise, excitement, but be able to quickly move back down to relaxed state. By exercising with interval training we move the body in and out of cortisol release nurturing this flexibility of the stress response. In addition, exercise can keep us from moving from an acute stress situation into chronic stress levels. In this way, we are reproducing the “lion chase” with exercise and facilitating our bodies use of mobilized energy.

But an even more revolutionary and consistent way to nurture our ability to move back and forth between a relaxed and excited state is through awareness which is cultivated through meditation. In meditation we hone our ability to be present. This creates a portal of consciousness back and forth between energized calm and centered excitement.

Imagine for a moment that you suddenly have to slam on your brakes to avoid hitting a car in front of you. The stress response begins its thing: heart rate is up, vessels constrict, blood pressure increases. However in awareness, you will be present, notice the sensations in the body and know when the stressful situation has abated. You will be less likely to get caught up in the drama of it by replaying the situation, blaming others or escalating the conflict by reacting to the other driver. In effect, you shorten the duration of cortisol release in the body. Your awareness will tell you when the stressful situation has ended and you will be able to come back into real time. This ability to quickly move back into calm gets better and better and you can develop shorter time periods of being “lost” mentally in the stressful event.

This all sounds wonderful, but how do we develop this ability to stay aware.

Firstly, a mindfulness of body practice like yoga, tai chi or xi gong is important. When we are mindful of our body state it short circuits the spinning of the mind and brings us into the present moment like a time machine.

Secondly, a meditation practice cultivates the minds’ ability to be focused, creates a state of calm and offers insights. When we have honed a focused mind, it is less likely to move from one thought to another; thoughts that, for the most part, create stress. You will be able to perceive when this is happening and redirect to the present situation.

The actual practice of developing concentration is relaxing as the mind settles down from its usual perpetual movement and rests on a particular object like the breath. And, finally, in the relaxed focused state of meditation, deep understandings can arise, offering us perspective when a stressful event happens.

The things we all find stressful-traffic jams, money worries, overwork, the anxieties of relationships. Few of them are “real” in the sense that that zebra or that lion would understand. In our privileged lives, we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors and uniquely foolish enough to have let them, too often, dominate our lives. Surely we have the potential to be uniquely wise enough to banish their stressful hold. -Robert Sapolsky, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”

Resources: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M Sapolsky, The Cortisol Connection, Shawn Talbott, PH.D, The Second Brain, Michael D. Gershon, M.D.