Most of us experience stress at some point in our lives, personally or professionally. Here's a look at what actually causes that reaction in the body and some steps to relieve stress.
Dr. Carolyn Matthews is the director of the Integrative and Functional Medicine Center at the Baylor Sammons Cancer Center.
What exactly is stress? 'The actual definition is a non-specific response to the body to any demand made upon it. That demand could be physical or psychological. Your body is going to do everything it can to maintain a semi-stable state, whether it’s temperature, blood sugar levels, well-being – anything that tips that balance is going to be a stressor on your body."
How or why does this happen? "We’re living in what’s called a 'sympathetic state.' We have two nervous systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. In general, the sympathetic state is one of excitement where we would be in what's called the 'fight or flight' mode, potentially. Fight or flight is what a zebra experiences when it’s being chased by a lion. Your pulse goes up; your blood pressure goes up. Parasympathetic on the other hand is the relaxed state. Your pulse is typically lower; your blood pressure is a little bit lower. You feel solid. You feel grounded."
What goes on in the body to produce the sympathetic state? “Usually, you get an outpouring of catecholamines — norepinephrine, epinephrine — and you’ll get cortisol. You get these hormones released when you’re stressed. There’s a wonderful book called “Molecules of Emotion” by Candace Pert that correlates what goes on in our emotions produces molecules that stimulate our hypothalamus, our pituitary, our adrenal glands. You get this outpouring of chemicals that then influence pretty much any aspect of our physiology.”
Is stress always bad for us? “No. You can have what’s called 'you stress,' which is a good stress. But when stress – whether it’s good or bad – becomes chronic, that’s bad. When you don’t relax, like the zebras do once the lion’s gone, the zebras go back to their baseline state. But as humans, we don’t get back to our calm state, particularly when stress is happening over and over again."
What can we do about stress? "We would do better if we have close friends, if we have a diversions or a hobby, if we can exercise. Practically speaking, what I’ll recommend to patients is try to think about those things you think are fun and do them. Similarly, try to think about the most relaxed and calm and grounded that you’ve ever felt and try to get to that state every day. It may be for five minutes; it may be for 15, maybe even longer. If we continually cultivate that grounded, calm state, and try to shift our nervous system back into that parasympathetic state as opposed to the sympathetic state, that is likely to be helpful.”
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