An analogy for stress – may help to handle stress.

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Is life a race against time? Or does time drag?

Last week I wrote a blog about exercise and the stress response mainly because I find people that are into exercise tend to exercise for too long – unless their goal is endurance competitions,like running marathons.  The reason why we don’t want to exercise too long is we cause ourselves counterproductive levels of stress.  In the course of writing the blog, I came across the most apt analogy for the stress response in a paper by my science hero, Robert Sapolsky.1 It is a review of much of the scientific research done on stress and drew out what happens.  Even Mr Sapolsky says ’emerging from this survey… is a picture of extraordinary diversity’ of the stress response.  It is extremely complicated.  However, to illustrate his points, he draws an analogy to the response to stress being like an army under fire.  And I have been thinking about this ever since and I think it helps us understand how stress depletes us and how important it is to take restorative action after a fight.

So here is a typical stress response:  we look at the clock and say,”Whaat!!” Time has done that magical thing of disappearing; what had felt like 5 minutes was actually 30 minutes.  The planned cup of tea and a nice biscuit gets put on hold as we rush into action, frantically working away at the computer to meet a deadline or frantically rushing around the house looking for the car keys then driving like a thing possessed, willing there to be no police or new speed cameras.  The brain narrows its focus.  If we bang our knee whilst swinging round the desk, it is a quick rub, then continue on as fast as possible.  Hopefully we meet the deadline and the stress is over.  This is a modern day version of the sabre toothed tiger jumping out of the bushes intent on making us its nice biscuit.  So in Dr Sapolsky’s analogy, we look at the clock – and see the enemy.  We shoot the enemy, using the immediate guns and troops, which rapidly run out of ammo.  As the stress goes on, we call on the trained reserves, we bunker down into our defences, we deploy the medical corps to stem wounds etc.  After the fight we need to restore our fighting forces, rebuild our defences, mend the wounded soldiers and prepare for the next assault.  If our stress came occasionally, then this would all work nicely.

However, a problem in the Western world of puritanical work ethic is to make people realise just how stressed they are, just how much they deplete their army everyday.  Another way of putting it is that, for the most part, in our day to day life we should not feel tired, grumpy, overwhelmed, bored or ill.  There should be enough time to meet the various deadlines, to fit in a bit of exercise or stretching, to fit in a bit of relaxation and to go to bed at a decent time.  We should have time to eat decent meals made with a variety of high quality foods. When we go on holiday, we don’t go down with a cold – a sure sign of having endured very high levels of stress. How many of us can say we meet all this?  And if we don’t, we are depleting our fighting army.

The joys of commuting.

So if life is tough, then action needs to be taken to restore the stress fighting army at every opportunity.  In the course of the review, Sapolsky frequently refers to the 2 opposite diseases, Cushing’s syndrome and Addison’s disease.  In the former, the body produces too many stress hormones and in the latter not enough.  To scare people into action, the symptoms of Cushing’s syndrome, from the chronically elevated cortisol, is muscle wastage, a fat belly – so the potato look, predisposition to diabetes, high blood pressure and attendant diseases.  Most people that come to see me want to lose their fat belly.  Fat around the belly button area is caused by long term, constant stress.2

In good amounts, stress is very good for the body – but we do have to a) recognise we are under stress and b) recover from a stress incident.  Getting enough high quality sleep is a critical part of recovery.  The main time our army can retrain, deepen the defences, sharpen the troops etc, is when we are asleep.  Another part of recovery is high quality nutrition.  An army marches on its stomach, they say.  I frequently find that people who have a stressful life and who want to lose weight, manage well during the week but come the weekend and their army is so overrun that they lose control over what they choose to eat; well chosen foods go out of the window in favour of high calorie comfort foods.  These just make the army fat and lazy. The answer lies in getting enough sleep, getting some exercise in and winding down well in the evening – and not just delaying recovery until the weekends or holidays.  The long term consequences of ignoring high stress levels are devastating to health.  To grow old fabulously requires long term attention to our army.

  1. Sapolsky RM, Romero LM, Munck AU.  How do glucocorticoids influence stress responses? Integrating permissive, suppressive, stimulatory and preparative actions.  Endocrine Reviews.  Feb 1, 2000. Vol. 21 no.1 55-89 []
  2. The symptoms of Addison’s Disease – a lack of stress hormones, include weight loss, low blood pressure and fainting, skin pigmentation, salt cravings, painful muscles and joints. []

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