Inspirational Articles

No More Stress, Please – Part 3

Stress and the Modern Human

No More Stress, Please – Part 3 

Series by Gord Riddell, July Newsletter

HELLO AND WELCOME- I hope you enjoyed our previous e-bulletin of the annual Student Solstice Celebration with photos. It is a time when we celebrate the work of our students during the past year. Today’s newsletter is Part 3 of my series on Stress and our need to revisit the importance of understanding how stress negatively impacts our well-being. If you missed parts 1 and 2, they can be found in the May and June 2017 newsletters respectively and on our website.

What we have learned in this series thus far is that stress has been and will be a part of our lives, and this is not about being stress free. Some stress is necessary. I want to have enough stress that when that truck comes careening around the corner I will have the wherewithal to jump out of the way. We cannot be so laid back that we are unable to respond to urgent situations. 

As unique individuals, we all have stress and what is stressful to me, may not be stressful to you. Evidence from many sources have established that how we experience stress is highly subjective with many variables involved, from our personality to our learned behaviours, our values and beliefs and our perception of the value of our stressors. A major stressor is the threat of loss, like our job, our housing, our health, our spouse, or the death of a parent, whether real or imagined, and it is solely through our eyes, our feelings and our thoughts that we determined that something is valuable enough for us to stress about. 

The human stress response is part of our evolutionary toolkit. This common yet individual experience of stress enabled humans as a species to survive, making it through our history without, among many things, becoming lunch for a Mastodon. Now if the stress response is an evolutionary benefit, why then are we concerned about a natural process that assisted the human species to survive?

There are many facets to the answer but when boiled down, our stress response, the fight or flight mechanism, is out of control. We have disproportionately larger reactions to some events in our lives than what the event calls for realistically. Our fight or flight mechanism is designed to be activated in extreme situations in which our lives are in danger. An example, in days of old when a predator was sniffing around outside of our ancestors’ caves and they were the potential target of its interest, it is our ancestors’ fight or flight mechanism which had them move, in a split second, into full survival mode to escape. 

Today, many people live, daily, in this extreme state of heightened awareness. Most people, thankfully, will never encounter an extreme life or death situation in their entire lives, yet they live as if something is occurring right outside their door and trying to find a way to get in. This is the realm of chronic stress and the long-term effects are quite brutal. Chronic stress is responsible for high blood pressure, heat disease, strokes, diabetes, obesity and kidney impairment. Long-term or chronic stress is also the pathway to depression and anxiety disorders.

When we are stressed our bodies produce a chemical called cortisol- It is also one of the most damaging of all the human enzymes or hormones when allowed to accumulate in our bodies. Cortisol is meant to be released at times of crisis and with the addition of other hormones like adrenaline, the cortisol becomes neutralized as the crisis resolves and our system returns to a calmer state of balance. However, with our bodies running on overdrive already, there is no place where a situation peaks, thus leaving behind this pool of cortisol. In a crisis, cortisol ensures an adequate supply of glucose, gleaned from the liver, to maintain us in our top, fight or flight, reaction mode. Cortisol is also pivotal in salt-water ratio and therefore our blood pressure, combine it with adrenaline, and it diverts energy from the digestive system to have it available for fight or flight.

Studies show that Cortisol decreases the efficacy and amounts available of both serotonin and dopamine, the backbone of our internal feel good and reward systems. Any decrease in these amounts available to our brain, often triggers behaviours used by individuals to provide relief from symptoms of depression, Bi-Polar disorder, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) through to anxiety disorders. Behaviours including alcohol, food, recreational drugs, sex, exercise, and prescription drug use are only a few of the possible behaviors that can be triggered to cope with the pain and discomfort our stress is causing us.

Quite a mess we have learned to get ourselves into and there is good news, it is also possible to move beyond it as well. Throughout this series, I have offered a few things that can be done to move out of our stress behaviours, our feelings and thoughts, evidence based tools use our breathing, meditation and exercise but there remains one piece that keeps us locked into perpetuating our stressful lifestyles…. our SILENCE. 

What do I mean by…SILENCE? We have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude when it comes to mental health in this country. We would rarely talk openly about being stressed, let alone talk about mental health. The Stigma that exists around mental health is re-enforced by our silence.

Here is our challenge: To see our brain as no different from any other part of our body, susceptible to malfunctioning, illness and disease. There is so much shame to becoming ill with an emotional/mental illness, by the patient and the family. It becomes our secret. There can be no room for shame in our health care. What we must do is talk about it. Talk about what it is we are feeling, what we are experiencing. What you are feeling? Learning how we got to the point of stressed out. 

What were those things I felt but ignored because I thought they would go away? Afraid that others would judge us as weak. There is very little tolerance, let alone compassion for things we don’t understand. We understand and hold a space of compassion for cancer, heart disease, gastric disorders, and mobility issues. Yet we hold old world ideas and descriptions, more like judgements, for any mental incapacity and their ability to take care of themselves.

Knowing we have a mental malfunction, then being forced into silence, must be incredibly stressful and painful. While we learn about our own stressors, understand how important it is to take stress seriously because the long term effects of chronic stress will wreck havoc on our body, mind and spirit!

Let go of what no longer serves us, and let us talk aloud till the stigma of emotional and mental illness disappears into our society’s distant past.

May the dog days of summer curl up at your feet, its warmth surround you and brings a smile to your face.

Be Well and Live Well

~ Gord Riddell