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Death By Stress? – Part I

By Dr Monique Thompson

WE’VE all heard the saying that stress kills. First and foremost, what is stress, and how true of a saying is this? Is this literally what happens or is this just another case of us blowing something grossly out of proportion? Well, I have come to my conclusion, but I wanted to put some information before you and let you decide for yourself.

The term “stress” can be defined in so many ways, but generally the term describes the physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioural response to situations perceived as being challenging or threatening. Therefore, stress is a type of response to stressors. The main responses we will explore include physical, mental, emotional and physiological (chemical/hormonal) stress.

The conclusion of whether or not stress actually kills us is where we will end this conversation, but before we get there, I wanted to open our eyes to some of the benefits of stress.

“Wait, what? But the title is Death by Stress!”

I know; it’s just that stress gets such a bad rap these days. So as I strive to be the eternal optimist, I am trying to see the glass as half full here.

Psalm 139:14 says, “I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (NIV)

In knowing full well that I am indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made”, I know that our bodies responding to stressors was no mistake. In fact, it is quite amazing. I am certain that many of us can actually attribute our survival to it in some way or another. A quick manoeuvre when driving to avoid a reckless driver, having the presence of mind and ability to keep your child from being attacked by a violent stray dog, and being able to work hours on end to complete an important project are all examples of real world situations where you would want the benefits that stress yields.

When we encounter a stressful situation we produce several hormones that help us deal with the situation – cortisol and adrenaline are major players.

The most well-known benefits of a stressful event surround our “fight or flight” response.

In the face of perceived or imminent danger our blood pressure and heart rate increases to ensure that sufficient oxygen gets to our essential organs; changes in our lungs allow us to obtain more oxygen; our body conserves energy by shutting down our digestive system so that we can have the stamina for more important tasks, and our pupils dilate so that we can let in more light and sharpen our vision. If you have to run from a bear, or fight one, all these adaptations are life-saving.

Another thing that happens during a stressful time is that we experience an energy boost. This can be attributed to the effects of both cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol allows glucose to enter and remain in our bloodstream, which is a source of energy. Adrenaline also improves memory, mental alertness and cognitive function. As a result, you may feel mentally sharp when working to meet that deadline. You can thank all the adrenaline coursing through your veins for that. Neurotrophins, brain chemicals produced in response to mild stress, strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain which ultimately enhance concentration. How amazing is that?

It is well documented that the right amount of “good stress” (eustress) helps us to function at our best. However, not enough of it or too much of it is not as beneficial. So don’t hate too much on stress because we do need a bit of it for optimal functioning. Researchers are also finding that encountering stressful situations, and dealing with them, better equips us for future events in that we perceive the event as one we can manage and control instead of shutting down.

Finally, the immune system also reaps some benefits because of interleukins and cortisol. Interleukins help regulate the immune system, and researchers are finding that cortisol, in small amounts, has the added benefit of helping to improve the immune system.

In closing, it is important to really emphasise that these effects result when the response is acute or relatively short-term. Long-term effects of stress tell a much different story – a story we will have to look at in part two of this article to come to our conclusion of whether not stress is really killing us.

• Disclaimer – this information is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition, rather to be used for educational purposes. Dr Monique Thompson is a naturopathic medical doctor and founder of Cornerstone Healing Institute, a naturopathic family medicine centre. For questions and information, call 356-0083.

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