Stress and I have a tenuous relationship and that’s a shame because under the right setting stress can be great.  When it’s the right amount we call it stimulation or also Holy Sh$%& that was awesome, let’s do it again!!! 

Sabbatical Prescription for StressBut now I find myself feeling anxious all the time, quick to anger and judgment, pissed off at the world, snapping at my kids who simply ask a question or commuting to work flying my middle finger like I’m waving a flag in a Flag Day parade.  I know that something has to change. There are times when I don’t like the person I’ve become.  What’s caused this change in me?  Stress!

Stress: The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the bodies basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it.

Stress is a biological response to a stressor either real or imagined.  Think about the scariest moment of your life.  Your heart was probably racing; all your senses were heightened and your body brought on the fight or flight response to whatever it was that you perceived as a threat.  This is natural and good and is considered short term stress.  But what research is finding is that we’ve taken it way too far.  What was once meant as a life saving response is now something that is chronic and turned on all the time and we can’t seem to find the off button.  We turn on this stress response to our every day worries and concerns and we’re never turning it off.  Why is this bad?  Let’s take a look at the physiological effects of chronic stress on our bodies.

Under stress our bodies pump out stress hormones which cause our heart to beat faster.  Blood flow to our brain increases up to 400%.  Our muscles tense up.  Our blood pressure rises.  Our digestion stops.  We breathe faster in order to get more oxygen to our muscles.  This is fine for short periods of perceived threat but when this response becomes chronic research has shown that there is a whole gamut of negative effects on the body.

Chronic stress can lead to a buildup of arterial plaque which can ultimately lead to cardiac disease and heart attacks.  It can cause high blood pressure which is another indicator of cardiac disease.  Elevated stress hormones can suppress the immune system leaving you more vulnerable to chronic diseases.

Stress can change your brain chemistry reducing learning and memory ability.  In other words you can lose the capacity to remember things.  (Now what was I going to say?) It can reduce dopamine receptor binding in the brain which reduces the feeling of pleasure in your life meaning the sun doesn’t shine as bright, the grass isn’t as green and that burger doesn’t taste as good as it did in the past.

Stress can affect your weight and the distribution of fat on your body.  Got a spare tire or a muffin top? Research has found that people under stress tend to put on fat weight around the mid-line.  This is much more dangerous fat to be carrying around than on other parts of our body because it produces different hormones and chemicals that have a negative effect on our health.

Chronic stress has been shown to have an effect on the length of telomeres which I am sure you remember from school protect the ends of chromosomes from deterioration.  The shortening of telomeres is what happens with aging.  So chronic stress can accelerate aging as measured by the length of telomeres and it plays a key role in cellular aging and disease development.

If your teeth are clenched and your fists are clenched, your lifespan is probably clenched.  ~Terri Guillemets

Here is a quick rundown of the effects of chronic stress on your body:

  • High blood pressure (elevated risk of heart attack or stroke)
  • Elevated stress hormones
  • Suppressed immune system
  • Reduced learning and memory capacity (killing brain cells)
  • Depression
  • Fat distribution and storage (midline)
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Inability to adaptively respond to stress
  • Poor health
  • Cellular aging and shortening of telomere length

The scary thing is you can be suffering from chronic stress and not even know it.  So where is this stress coming from?  Dr. Robert Sapolsky an American scientist has researched baboon troops in Africa for over 30 years studying the effect and level of stress hormones on individuals in the population.  What he’s discovered is that the amount of stress an individual has is a direct result of where they rank in the hierarchy of the baboon troop.  The subordinate or low ranking baboons experienced high stress and had elevated levels of stress hormones in their blood whereas dominant males who were high up in the social hierarchy had low stress and low levels of stress hormones in their blood.  Further research in Great Britain with the British Civil Service has shown a similar correlation in humans as well.

What this means is that where you fall into the social structure of your environment determines how much stress you are under.  The study with the British Civil Service showed that people higher on the social ladder with a lot of flexibility in their schedule and the ability to better control their environment and their response to factors in their environment had less stress and less stress related diseases.  The recurring theme in the studies was that it wasn’t the demands of the job that caused the stress but the extent that a person was allowed to control their response to those demands.  To me this is very revealing.  What these studies are saying is that while an intense job like a high level executive position can lead to a slight increase in risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control over your environment is significantly more dangerous to your health and longevity.

In most cases stress is the root cause of death; illnesses are just the wrap up ~ Yordan Yordanov

Another cause of stress related to social stature is your status in the community in which you live.  Do you live in a nice neighborhood with parks and playgrounds and manicured lawns or do you live in a sketchy neighborhood with robberies and shootings?  Are you able to afford all the nice things we are led to believe we need?  Society has a way of rubbing our face in it by showing us the things that we don’t have.  Just think about all the advertising we are bombarded with every second of teh day.  Again studies have shown that if you live in a nice area and can afford nice things your levels of stress are lower and hence your risk of chronic disease is reduced.  Those who live in poorer areas seem to be always on edge, always looking over their shoulder in a heightened state of awareness of their surroundings and have been shown to be at high risk of stress related diseases.

So how can we resolve the stress crisis in our lives?  How can we make deposits instead of withdrawals from our life bank?  Has stress affected your enjoyment of life?

In the 2nd part of this post next week we’ll explore how taking a sabbatical can reduce our stress and help us find ways to better manage it post sabbatical.

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