Finding Your Zen: Hacking the Connection Between Stress and Chronic Illness
Chronic stress is truly an epidemic in our society today. If it seems as if you’re always on the go, feeling burnt out, and constantly fighting to maintain balance – sadly, you’re not alone.
Surveys show that most adults have experienced severe prolonged stress at different points in their lives. Whether it’s related to relationships, career, illness, or trying to maintain an internal drive for “perfectionism” – stress is literally eating us alive and has been scientifically implicated in the development of numerous chronic diseases, as well as complicating the struggle to maintain body weight, cognitive function and overall quality of life.
Allowing oneself to be crushed under a mountain of stress has several serious health implications. However, for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on how stress contributes to the development of chronic disease – specifically autoimmune disorders, which count women among their highest victims.
Personally, I was diagnosed with Lupus back in 2004 and as anyone with a chronic illness can tell you, stress is one of our greatest enemies. Whether you’re experiencing overwhelm, juggling a demanding job, managing a household, experiencing relationship problems, trying to get through school – or just dealing with the various problems and anxiety associated with modern life, – unchecked stress can have dire consequences. It can cause your body to either giving out on you (severe fatigue) or become overactive and launch an attack on your own tissue and organs (auto-inflammatory response). There are a few reasons for that.
The Physiology of Stress
To understand why stress is such a problem for people with an autoimmune disorder – and the general population as well, you have to understand what goes on in the body chemically when we get upset, or are dealing with especially stressful or dangerous circumstances. Then I’ll explain the holistic perspective on chronic stress and why that alone could be the cause for the development of a chronic illness, as it was in my case. Finally, I’ll share some holistic tips for reducing stress, calming inflammation and promoting general health and balance.
The body is made up of many intricate systems, one of the most expansive and critical being the hormonal (endocrine) system, which releases and regulates hormones in the body in response to certain stimuli, and also maintains various aspects of body function. Things like metabolism, your internal body temperature, mood, etc., are all dictated by this flow of hormones.
In the best of circumstances, the body runs like a well-oiled machine and maintains a healthy balance of hormones and neurotransmitters. However, when factors cause critical hormones to be either under-produced, or overproduced- you can develop very serious symptoms, including those that manifest as lupus and other autoimmune and chronic diseases.
Now, when it comes to stress, the two major hormones you’ll hear about are Cortisol and Adrenalin (Epinephrine), which are released from the adrenal glands (part of the endocrine system).
Adrenaline is probably the most well-known of the two, and is the hormone (and also a neurotransmitter) that’s activated when you feel a sense of danger – initiating the “fight or flight” response. The effect of this is that your breathing becomes deeper, you can become more focused and also receive a jolt of energy which is designed to help you think and move rapidly away from harm. I’m sure you’ve heard of people showing almost super-human strength or agility when faced with a major threat – that’s adrenaline at work.
So, adrenaline is not a bad thing in and of itself, and is actually critical to our survival. The problem however, is that this built-in protective mechanism was much more useful when we had to be on the lookout for Mammoths and Saber-tooth Tigers. In today’s modern world, there are a lot more stressors, but the intensity of them often does not warrant a mammoth-sized response from our body. However, the sympathetic nervous system is unable to differentiate between the two, so we get a similar flood of adrenaline whether it’s from something as simple as seeing a mouse – or almost swerving off the road.
Can you see how that would be problematic over time?
On the other hand, Cortisol is a hormone which regulates the way the body uses fuel and often reroutes blood flow and resources to more critical areas while you’re dealing with a crisis. Cortisol is also responsible for bringing you “down” after an adrenaline rush and ensuring that all of your levels return to normal. Cortisol is released slower, over a longer period of time than adrenaline, because it has a lot of cleanup work to do to restore homeostasis. However, for much of the population today, this process has been hijacked.
How Constant Stress Hijacks Your Hormones & Causes Illness
In a perfect world, you would only get a rush of adrenaline when you truly need it, in order to deal with a dangerous situation. However, any anxiety or fear inducing event can prompt an adrenaline dump – and it doesn’t have to even be a real threat, it could be something that you’ve only thought about. And in our ever connected, hyper-stimulated world, the adrenaline is often summoned on a constant basis.
The presents a real problem, because if adrenaline is constantly rising, then Cortisol is never able to effectively down-regulate the nervous system and return body functions and processes back to a normal, balanced state. This actually prompts the body to release even more Cortisol in an effort to reduce the Adrenaline levels and there ends up being an overabundance of this hormone in your system that can lead to problems.
Over time, this buildup of Cortisol can cause adrenal fatigue and burnout, as well as prompt the development of chronic diseases like lupus. Additionally, it’s interesting to note that Cortisol is also a “corticosteroid”, similar in nature to synthetic steroid medications prescribed to fight lupus. The goal of both is to try to calm the body (or the immune system) from its fevered, overactive state. In a study conducted by the Carnegie Mellon Institute, researchers found that:
“Chronic psychological stress is associated with the body losing its ability to regulate the inflammatory response. The research shows for the first time that the effects of psychological stress on the body’s ability to regulate inflammation can promote the development and progression of disease.”
Yes! Finally a confirmation of what I’ve been saying for years! Back when I first became ill – and even before being diagnosed, I used to always say that I was “poisoning myself with adrenaline”, but more accurately- my adrenaline levels stayed so constantly high, that the resulting Cortisol was never really able to its job of bringing my body back to normal after crisis. As a result, my Cortisol levels stayed artificially high, which numerous studies have shown over time can cause serious damage to the body and promote the development of chronic illness.
Taking Charge of Stress
So now that modern science has confirmed what holistic and integrative health traditions have known instinctively for centuries – it’s time to do something about it. We truly live in a stressed-to-the-max world right now and if we don’t get a handle on it soon, our own health will continue to suffer, and the number of cases of chronic and autoimmune diseases will continue to skyrocket.
This is a subject that we discuss at great length in my holistic health classes, because in my opinion medical – and even holistic interventions have little or no chance of working effectively to combat disease when the body is a constant chemical cocktail of Adrenaline and Cortisol. It’s like trying to put out a fire with a water gun. This is why in my work with patients, we take a full 8 weeks to address the emotional, mental and environmental (relationships, career, support systems) stressors that are keeping your levels high and impede healing – and we’ve seen amazing results among our participants, Alhamdulillah.
Below are a few examples of how you can begin to reverse chronic stress/inflammation trend and give your body the best chance of healing.
::Stress is a Choice::
I know this can be hard to swallow, but it’s true. A wise woman once told me “It’s not your positioning, it’s your DISposition”. This basically means that no matter what is going on in your life, you have the ability to consciously choose how you will allow said event to affect you emotionally.
Many people think that stress is something that you can’t avoid, but there are mind-shifts, tools and therapies that can help you to better integrate, process and respond to stressful situations, which allows the cortisol to clean things up much quicker and return you back to a state of balance. This is something that I work on with my students in depth, because learning not to let events or people trigger you is one of the most POWERFUL tools you can have in your healing toolkit.
We often think that we can’t sleep because we’re stressed out, but in truth a lot of times we’re stressed out because we can’t sleep! Clinical research shows that achieving normal sleep patterns (6-8 hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep) can reduce inflammation levels, as the body uses this time when we’re unconscious to clean up waste and repair cells and tissue. If we’re always up, it’s hard for that to happen.
And believe me, I know that insomnia – or “Painsomnia” is something very real that many of us struggle with- especially if you are dealing with an illness. This could be a side effect from medications, the result of intense inflammatory pain, depression, or a symptom of being plugged into the laptop or Iphone while in bed. Whatever the reason, establishing a winding down or bed-time ritual – and sticking to it, can help lull your nervous system into a state of rest.
::Choose Your Company Wisely::
As we’ve seen, negative emotions can cause a serious spike in our hormone and resulting inflammation levels (the main cause of many diseases). One of the biggest contributors to emotional stress can often be the people that we surround ourselves with. Whether it’s a relative who preys on your giving nature, a toxic marraige, or a negative friend (the kind that talks about EVERYBODY), surrounding yourself with people who bring on mental and emotional stress and anxiety is definitely NOT good for your health.
Many people are unaware of this, but almost 80% of your immune system resides in your gut. And research has shown that there are literally neurotransmitters, which have corresponding receptors in your intestines. What this means is that that nervousness and queasiness you feel in your stomach when you’re anxious and upset? That’s a direct result of chemicals released from your brain that are absorbed in your intestines – if left unchecked will cause your inflammation levels and likelihood of disease to rise.
Tying it All Together
Remember, emotions and thoughts can cause stress, just as much as physical experiences, so setting up boundaries and loving yourself enough to dictate the type of interactions you will – and will not participate in, can have a profound impact on your health – both physically and mentally.
This can be a lot to integrate if you’ve been on the stress hamster wheel for a while, or if you don’t have the support of people around you in making these changes a reality. However, know that YOU are worth drawing a line in the sand and making small consistent steps to reduce your stress levels and therefore improve your overall health and quality of life. If you need support to help you along the journey, do not hesitate to seek out aid in any form possible – it’s that important.
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