Reprogramming your stress response

03.31.16 |

Left unchecked stress can create life threatening circumstances for your health

At this point, the dangers of stress are common knowledge. We know that living in a perpetual state of heightened anxiety strains nearly ever critical function in our bodies—from our circulatory system to our digestion to our sleep patterns.

Left unchecked over a long enough period of time, stress can create life threatening circumstances for your health.

Stress can be a useful survival response

Stress as a mechanism is not necessarily negative. In the context of “fight or flight,” stress is an incredibly useful survival response. When we perceive that we are in danger, our bodies prioritize escaping or overcoming the thing that threatens us, releasing a series of chemical that heighten our awareness and give us the burst of energy we might need to outrun a predator.

Sustaining the fight or flight state comes at the cost of other vital functions in your body.

Unfortunately, this is a bit like diverting all of the energy to the forward shields in Star Trek.

It can be done a few times in an emergency, but sustaining the fight or flight state comes at the cost of other vital functions in your body.

When we were simple hunters and gatherers, we quickly “burned off” the chemicals from stress with activity, and the threat that triggered the stress in the first place was usually pretty serious. Today, most of us aren’t worried about a tiger attack in our everyday lives, so we have started to apply the stress response to problems like bills, arguments at work, or problems at home.

That’s not to say that these things aren’t important (they are), but when you’re at a desk and you feel stress, you don’t walk or run for the next three hours like your stone age brethren would have. If you’re like the average American, you sit for the rest of the day, and then you go home and sit some more. You stew in the stress, never burning off the chemicals that lead to your heightened state of fight or flight.

And over time, that adds up.

I walk my readers through the mechanics of health because I believe it’s essential to helping you make a change. If you understand how your body and mind work, you are better equipped to reprogram your Habits of Disease into Habits of Health. To me, saying “You should exercise” will never be good as “You should exercise because of X, Y, and Z, and here’s how we can make it more practical for you.” The first call to action lacks purpose and context.

Breaking the cycle

The same goes for dealing with stress. The more we understand it, the more we can step out of the tension of the moment and make a more informed decision about what we want for ourselves and for our health.
Adding to this, a small study in Nature Communications found that the uncertainty of a situation might actually be more stressful than the situation itself. In the study, participants played a computer game where they turned rocks over, and some rocks hid a snake. If participants found a snake, they received a small shock.

It turned out that not knowing whether a snake was under a rock was more stressful than actually receiving the shock. Based on their findings, the researchers suggest that any situation where the outcome is unknown could generate stress.

Tips to make the unknown less threatening

Not sure what career path to take? Not sure how that meeting will go? Not sure if your loved one is still mad at you or not?

Those are stressful situations! Here are some tips that might make the unknown a bit less threatening:

  • Do your homework. If you have a big decision to make, take the time to do the research and make an educated choice. Yes, there is still a chance it’s the “wrong” choice, but you aren’t psychic. The best you can do is make the most informed decision possible, and that’s okay.
  • Don’t procrastinate. Putting off dealing with an uncertain outcome means that the anxiety of not knowing will linger for much longer than it needs to. If there is a problem in your life, be proactive. Address it early so that you can move on.
  • Take a minute to breathe. A few moments of mindfulness meditation can help you to step outside of the situation to think objectively about what lies before you. Challenge yourself to think about how you are reacting and to choose the healthier alternative.

Stress is serious, but I hope that with a bit of education and a bit of practice, you can lessen its impact on your life.