Is stress contributing to your chronic condition?
In his book, How to Make Disease Disappear, Dr Rangan Chatterjee says,
What I'm about to say probably sounds far-fetched, but here it is. The health problems of the majority of patients I see - yes, the majority - are driven entirely by their lifestyle. It's not cuts or bruises or bacteria or a fungus or a virus or some tumor or hereditary disorder that's the source of their pain, but the way they're choosing to live."
Does this surprise you?
The notion that we need to take better care of ourselves is commonplace today. We are aware of the harmful effects of eating too much sugar and sitting too much. We know that making better food choices and getting more physical activity is good for us. However, there is relatively little information widely shared around the harmful impacts of chronic stress. Chronic stress puts you at risk for a plethora of modern conditions like heart disease, diabetes, hypothyroidism and autoimmunity, to name but a few.
Not only is stress commonly accepted as a fact of life in our culture, it would seem as if it's actually encouraged. Busyness is seen as a badge of honor. Being ambitious and working hard, often more than 40 hours per week is required if one wants to climb the corporate ladder or get that next promotion. And we need that income because society drives consumerism - the big house, nice cars, the newest tech, leisure vehicles like motor homes, quads, boats, etc., winter getaway vacations, summer cabins and on and on. Marketing of this lifestyle and these items has expanded beyond the traditional platforms of television and print ads to social media, bombarding us constantly.
Compounding the regular everyday things we think of as stressful - work, family, finances, life in general - there's the constant barrage of physiological stressors that often go unnoticed - that is until they start to manifest in physical symptoms and disease. Our bodies work hard to maintain homeostasis, which involves keeping things like blood sugar, blood pressure, hormones, pH levels and hundreds of other items within fairly narrow range limits for optimal health. Under normal conditions, when stressors are short-lived, or acute, our bodies can manage the stress and recover relatively quickly. Issues arise when stressors are long-lived, constant and chronic.
One of the aspects of stress I find most fascinating is that it's subjective and depends a lot on our internal resources and perspective. What this means is that different stressors will affect everyone differently depending on one's perception and ability to cope with the stress. There are four key factors that determine how we perceive stress. They are the novelty of the event, the unpredictable nature of the event, the perceived threat to our body or ego, and the sense of loss of control. These factors can be recalled using the mnemonic NUTS. To assess stress we consciously or unconsciously ask ourselves 2 questions:
Does this matter to me?
Do I have the resources to cope with this?
Stress is ever present in our lives and when left unchecked can wreak havoc on our health. You can have your nutrition and movement dialed in and still not achieve the results you want or feel your best if you are not managing your stress. Alternately, for some, it is not until you manage your stress that you have the energy and motivation to make the changes you want around food and physical activity.
As a take away, the next time you experience stress, consciously ask yourself those 2 questions. Get curious about your stress. Maybe you discover that it's really not that important to you, and you can let it go. Or maybe you discover that yes, it's really does matter and then you can explore further to determine why it matters. Is it a value that's being undermined? Is it creating a strong emotion that's painful or difficult to process?How about your ability to cope? Can you step out of the immediate stressful sensations and marshal your strengths to help you? Or perhaps you recognize that you need to ask for some help? Notice if bringing awareness, curiosity and consciousness to your stress changes your perception of it and reduces the impact.