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Stress has a bad reputation. You’ve probably heard that it’s going to kill you, or at least damage you in some way. Should you be working on it? Should you be trying to manage it? Just thinking about the consequences of stress is enough to make you feel…really stressed!
But stress gets bad press, and the situation isn’t quite what you might think. Stress can actually be a good thing. We all need stress in our lives. Without the stress of opposing gravity, our muscles and bones would quickly begin shrinking and the muscle and bone cells are replaced by fat cells. The number of mitochondria in the muscles will also steadily decline. Astronauts rapidly lose their muscle mass and bone density as they experience weightless and the absence of gravity—in other words, the absence of stress. The same thing happens to those who are hospitalized or are on bed rest for any reason.
But maybe that’s not the kind of stress you were thinking about. Mental stress is actually useful, too. If your brain did not undergo the stress of learning and adapting to a changing environment, the connections between your brain cells would decline and the volume of your hippocampus (the memory center for the brain) and the brain and spinal cord would degenerate. The result would be a decline in your cognitive or thinking skills. Every time you experience something new, every time you have a challenge (positive or negative), every time you have to work to figure out a problem, you are growing the connections in your brain and preserving your brain function. That’s all good.
But here’s the tricky part, and the way in which stress actually can be damaging: both physical and mental stress require regular periods of recovery. When we stress our muscles and bones with a vigorous workout, the cells sustain micro-damage. The body responds with inflammation that will repair that cell and make a cell that is more vigorous (stronger).
However, without that rest, the repair and subsequent strengthening cannot happen. If the stressful workout fatigues the cells every day, they will not strengthen as effectively, and can even break down over time. This is why exercise trainers advise working out muscles every other day rather than daily.
The same thing holds true for the brain. Vigorous challenges need to be followed by periods of rest, so the brain can repair and strengthen, forging its new connections and essentially physically internalizing the benefits of the new experiences and information.
More specifically, the normal response to a threat is the activation of the sympathetic nervous systems and the adrenals to produce stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. When this happens, the human body becomes faster, stronger, and has more acute vision and hearing, to best master the challenge, defeat the threat, or flee effectively. This is a survival mechanism. The body is then meant to quickly process the stress hormone out of the body and return to an idle state.
But when there is a continuous and unrelenting elevation of stress hormones, those hormones remain circulating in the system long after they should be gone. This causes all sorts of disruption to the thyroid hormones, sex hormones, growth hormones, insulin levels, and more. Blood sugar goes up and stays up. Insulin levels disregulate. Our bodies don’t put sufficient energy into those normal functions we are meant to undergo when at rest, like digestion, hormone manufacturing, toxin elimination, and damage repair. As a result, continued stress makes us less effective, and less healthy. Inflammation continues to rise, toxins stay in the system, hormones get more and more imbalanced, and we are at increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental health problems, dementia, and autoimmunity.
Too many of us have our stress response activated all of the time, or engage in physical training programs that do not provide sufficient rest time for the cells to repair from the work out. Nearly all of the patients I see suffer from lack of adequate relaxation response, in both their muscles and nervous systems.
So you can see what the real problem is here. It is not our exposure to stress, which is necessary for maintaining our health. It is the absence of getting back to the idle state or the absence of an adequate relaxation response. We are meant to face challenges in our life, but we are also meant to be able to recover quickly from the threats so that our bodies can go back to doing all the maintenance and repair work required by our bodies and our brains.
So what do we do about it? Here’s what I teach my patients: Don’t fear stress. Welcome it. Daily challenges, both physical and mental, build you up and make you stronger, smarter, and healthier. However, recovery is equally important and must be given a priority in daily life. There are many ways to improve our relaxation response. These include moderate exercise, journaling, gardening, fishing, foraging, biofeedback modalities such as HeartMath, mantra-based meditation, yoga, or simply some time in nature to get back to the idle state each day. I ask my patients to choose activities that they enjoy, that match who they are and fit into their schedules, and to engage in a stress reducing activity every day, preferably a couple times a day.
It’s necessary both to have stress and to have an adequate relaxation response to ensure that we get the benefits of stress and of the effective relaxation response to get us back to the idle state. Personally, I stress my body and my brain daily to ensure that my strength continues to improve and that my mind stays sharp. But I also engage in activities each day that will help me get back to the idle state and allow my body to repair damage from the physical work out, and to resume the maintenance and repair work that my cells need. I vary my relaxation techniques and I vary my physical and mental training programs as well, because I know that I need both stress and relaxation to be fully alive and to thrive. And so do you.