One Nation Under Stress: Is There Anything We Can Do?
A couple of weeks ago I watched the documentary, One Nation Under Stress. It was eye-opening. According to the latest research, the stressed state is becoming more common.
“Stress-related psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and depression, are currently the most common mental health disorders in the United States. By 2020, depression will have the second highest lifetime burden of disease, exceeded only by heart disease (1)”
After finishing the documentary, I wanted to get a better understanding of stress and its effects. And since the stressed state is taking over the world, I figured others would be interested too. So without further ado, let’s get nerdy and talk about stress.
What Is Stress?
There are two main nervous systems in the body. The parasympathetic (relax and digest) and the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system. Stress can be defined as the body’s response to a real or perceived threat or challenge. Generally speaking, the stress response can be broken down into acute and chronic stress. An acute response refers to intermittent exposure to a stressor. This is the body’s survival and reproduction mechanism, you will either fight, flight, or fuck. During an acute stress response, the sympathetic nervous system will activate. Focus, reaction time and pain tolerance will increase. For a brief amount of time, you become superhuman! Strength levels, creativity, and the ability to solve problems increase. How cool is that?
Unfortunately, you can’t stay superhuman for too long or you have to pay the consequences. The body has to relax and return to a parasympathetic state. Problems arise when stress levels stay elevated for too long. Research has shown chronic stress to be detrimental to health.
“Among healthy individuals, anxiety can be associated with unhealthy behaviors such as physical inactivity, smoking, and poor diet, leading to increased risk for developing health issues (2).”
Now, this doesn’t happen overnight. The body is extremely resilient. But over time, stress levels can add up, especially if you are deprived of sleep, nutrients, and exercise. At a certain threshold (see graph below), muscle breaks down, fat storage increases, and parts of the brain responsible for memory and rational thinking shrink (3). Yikes...No wonder people think climate change isn’t real.
Why Are We So Stressed Out?
I believe perceived stressors are the main cause of chronic stress. Perceived and physical stress can be broken down into eustress and distress. Eustress is perceived as beneficial to us, i.e. exercise, sex, a promotion at work. Whereas distress is perceived as negative and detrimental to our health i.e. lack of sleep, loss of a loved one, losing your job. Remember, the brain reacts to perceived and physical stressors the same. So the stressor will be specific to the individual. For some, sitting in traffic could be just as stressful as running up a hill, especially if you live in Los Angeles.
Let’s pretend you are driving to work and have an important meeting at 9 am. You can’t miss this meeting or you might lose your job. On the way to work, traffic starts to accumulate due to a car accident. Your hands are tied and you are stuck. You can’t do anything about the situation and you are going to be late for the meeting. Frustration builds. You try to play it cool, but cars aren’t moving. You are stuck bumper to bumper. The lack of control sends you over the edge. So, of course, you lose it and start screaming...“FUCK!!!” At this moment, the body goes from a relaxed, parasympathetic state to a stress-induced sympathetic state. The brain releases a chemical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters to get the body ready for war. Adrenaline pumps through the veins. “Thump….thump...thump..thump..thump!” Heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket. The eyes dilate. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases and triggers a cascade of events. Stored sugar is broken down and sent into the blood. The stomach empties and blood is sent to muscles. The body is primed for movement. But unfortunately, you are stuck and there is nothing you can do about it….or is there?
Train the Mind
The ability to stay relaxed and calm in the situation above is key. You must focus on what is in or outside your control. Traffic happens to be outside of our control. We can't change what has happened, but we can change how we react. This is highlighted by Viktor Frankl, a renowned psychiatrist, author, and Holocaust survivor:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
When we lose the ability to control our stress response, we increase our risk for chronic stress and a host of diseases. Therefore, we must strengthen the muscles responsible for awareness. We must learn to recognize perceived stressors and not react. To do this, we must train the mind with meditation. But how long is enough? In my next blog post, I will answer this and many more questions about meditation. For now, I recommend downloading a guided meditation app like Headspace. You can get the app at headspace.com, the Google Play Store, or the Apple App Store. (Seriously, give it a try.)