What Doesn’t Kill Us, Makes Us Stronger…Well, Maybe!

When it comes to being stressed, we all have stories to share.  One story that we can all weigh in on began in March, 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic reared its ugly head. This novel, highly contagious virus impacted everyone in some way with lock downs, mask mandates, social isolation, financial/economical concerns, food supply issues, health care (physical and mental), school closings, and the list goes on.  Mixed into this global unrest was/is a heavy load of emotional fear— fear of catching this raging virus; fear of the unknown; fear of what we can’t control; and, the ultimate fear of death.  Stress was and still is, quite pervasive!

In the next few issues of the PhytoFit newsletter, we are going to take a deeper-dive into stress and how we can manage it.  You may recall from previous newsletter discussion, Lifestyle medicine is the use of evidenced-based, lifestyle therapeutic approaches, such as a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substance use and other non-drug modalities to treat, oftentimes, reverse and prevent lifestyle-related chronic diseases that are all too prevalent in society. As one of the Six Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine, stress management is a critical component of disease prevention, treatment and reversal.

According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM), “…stress can lead to improved health and productivity, or it can lead to anxiety, depression, obesity, immune dysfunction and more. Recognizing negative stress responses, identifying coping mechanisms and reduction techniques leads to improved wellbeing.”

The Good, Bad and Ugly:

Eustress, or good stress, can lead to improved health and productivity. For example, when we stress our muscles during exercise, either aerobic, flexibility or strength training, we know that we are improving our health through a stronger cardiovascular system and musculature. 

We also know that when it’s the day-before-vacation, we are intrinsically motivated to complete all the work that has piled-up on our desks. Our productivity goes up three-fold and our ability to accomplish major work is magnified. 

In both scenarios, we are pushing ourselves to attain our goals. We have the energy, motivation and focus to get the job done. You probably can think of other events that provided “good stress” in your life. Remember, eustress is exciting, motivating and short-term.

The Bad…

Unlike eustress, long-term stress has a negative health effect. You have heard of the “fight or flight response,” which is the body’s reaction to pressures and stressors. In prehistoric times, a sabra-toothed tiger chasing us in the jungle would surely trigger the “fight or flight response.”  Today it may be unrealistic job expectations, on-going health challenges and/or a novel corona viruse that can cause major disruptions to our daily living.  

According to the ACLM Lifestyle Medicine Handbook, “The body does not recognize the different sources of the stress response (i.e., pandemic fallout vs. a lion in the wild), it merely responds to the autonomic processes by releasing stress hormones, regardless of the physical situation.” For example, adrenaline, which is the “fight or flight” hormone, increases both heart rate and breathing rate. It sends glucose to the muscles to facilitate combat and constricts blood vessels to push the blood to the muscles for immediate action.

The Ugly…

Just like Covid-19, some stressors can remain with us for extended periods of time and our bodies must adapt to higher stress levels. Outwardly, we may become irritable, frustrated, unable to concentrate and find it difficult to relax or sleep. Physiologically, as we experience increased levels of cortisol, higher blood pressure and elevated heart rates for extended periods of time, our bodies adapt to these higher demands—but often at a cost.  

If not managed properly, on-going or chronic stress can negatively impact our health in many ways. Long-term stress causes physical, emotional and mental exhaustion to the point your body just can’t keep fighting. Physiological conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, and a weakened immune system can manifest. Unfortunately, these conditions are not easy to reverse; it is important that we learn to control our reactions through stress management.

To be continued: Not to cause undue stress, the next PhytoFit newsletter will address coping mechanisms and creative ways to manage stress. Stay tuned, take a deep breath, and remember the only thing we truly can control is our reaction to stress.