Chronic Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

We looked last time at our stress reactions in all their physical and mental glory as prehistoric systems that are on board in all animals, acquired through evolution, because they save lives. I like to remind myself that we are all at the end of a very long family tree of survivors – if any of our remote relatives hadn’t been able to survive, to then conceive and protect their children, we just wouldn’t be here. Stress reactions, in part, got us here.

But just like guests, stress can be tremendous for a while but not without end. Chronic stress is a huge wear and tear problem. Psychological stress can become a 24/7 state of emergency, demanding that our immune, endocrine, cardiovascular, gastric, emotional and thinking systems all work overtime. Without rest and recovery, ongoing psychological stress nibbles away at us from the molecular and cellular levels on up to the levels of our behaviour and our relationships.

For example, research shows that chronic stress influences basic physical systems such as wound healing. One study administered the very same cut to the arms of brave or bribed medical school students at two different times – during the exam period (high stress!!) and during the summer break (ahh, that’s better!), and then watched carefully to see how the cuts healed. They found that greater stress resulted in the simple wounds taking days longer to heal, a result of stress-related changes in immune and inflammatory processes.

Stress-related wear and tear can be seen at the molecular level. Chronic stress can actually shorten our lives because it chemically damages parts of our chromosome structure, the telomeres, which determine, among other things, aging and disease development. There may be some truth to it when Uncle Max said that the strike at work took years off his life. Psychological stress contributes to the majority of visits to family doctors, and some long term studies have shown relations between stress and cancer and between stress and heart disease that are greater than the relation between smoking and those ailments.

And it may be no surprise to know that our levels of stress are increasing. A recent U.S. survey found that 60% of people are more irritable and angry, and more than half said they now lie awake at night because of stress. The economy, future uncertainty, media violence, family strain, illness, addictions – it’s a long list – it all gets to us more deeply than we like to think.

What to practice? All the advice that you may have heard about dealing with your stress is good to heed, but tweak it so that it fits just for you. Maybe ration your diet of the doom and gloom news. Ration the sweets and fats and carbos too. Go for walks. Decrease the drama in your life by watching that voice in your head and how much it complains and grumbles. Even better, watch that voice in your head to see how hard it is being on you. Watch to see when you make critical comparisons. It’s often very helpful to take an inventory of the things that get us worried, angry, impatient, sad or scared. Usually it’s not anything that really matters to the degree that we experienced it to be (“Whoa, I really got bent out of shape because that person was slow in the checkout line!”). It’s a good piece of homework to take on. And maybe take a little time to practice appreciation and gratitude – if we look, we find an awful lot to be delighted by and thankful for.