The basic mismatch
Our bodies have evolved to:
unwind – i.e. a baseline state of relaxation, interspersed with short periods of (acute) stress[i].
Modern life sets us up for:
wound up – i.e. a baseline state of ongoing (chronic) stress.
Why does it matter?
The foundations of health begin here, at the core of well-being. Chris Kresser defines stress as what happens when “the demands of modern life exceed our capacity to deal with them”[ii].
A continual state of stress has become so common that it is often accepted as ‘normal’. It isn’t. This is not how humans have evolved. It is a very new situation. Addressing this issue really can open the door to feeling better, and ignoring it can stall our best efforts in other areas.
How does it work?
The stress response is there to keep us alive in situations of acute (short term) stress. This was appropriate for the majority of human history , when it was balanced out by the discharge of hormones (by fighting or fleeing), and long periods of ‘rest and digest’ (i.e. activation of the parasympathetic nervous system). Now, not so much [i] [ii].
Modern life in much of the world puts most of us in a place of ongoing (chronic) stress of varying degrees. This seriously impacts our ability to function properly in a multitude of ways (see below).
The overall stress burden includes 4 main categories of stressor [i]:
- Psychological (e.g. familiar ones: emotional, work-related or family stress)
- Physical (some more obvious, like illness or disrupted sleep, some perhaps less so, such as a sedentary lifestyle or overtraining)
- Chemical (e.g. alcohol, smoking, medications, allergens, food additives or other chemical exposure)
- Sensory (loud noise, bright lights, crowds etc)
Basically, anything that gives the body extra work to do in order to try and maintain balance.
What is at stake?
- Significantly increased risk (and often at least part of the cause) of almost every chronic disease, including: depression & anxiety; cancer; cardiovascular disease; obesity; diabetes; autoimmune disease; infections; addiction; memory problems and digestive issues
- Increased inflammation (a feature of all chronic disease)
- Negative effects on productivity, cognitive function, working memory, mood, physical performance, learning and flexibility (thereby limiting our choices)
- Worsening symptoms of existing conditions
- Disturbed sleep, which increases stress…a nasty cycle of badness
- Increased appetite and food cravings
- Negative impacts on gut health, including directly causing increased intestinal permeability (or ‘leaky gut’)
- Obstructing the benefits of the healthy habits we do have (e.g. the benefits of a nutritious diet are limited by poor digestion)
- Prevents the body from prioritising some processes not essential for immediate survival (like reproduction, digestion, growth, repair and internal immune function)
Crikey! What now?
No matter how overwhelmed by stress you may feel, there are so many things you can do. They don’t need to be big, or all at once. Attempting frazzled to zen in a single move is likely to cause more stress than it alleviates. Doing a tiny good thing is so much better than doing nothing at all. What if you could start with a minute a day? Some steps can help to reduce the stress load (take some stuff out of the bucket). Others can improve our ability to cope with stress (get a bigger bucket!). Some can help with both. See the next article in this series for some specific ideas to spark your thinking.
Further information / References:
My aim with these articles is to summarise key points from a variety of sources into a quick and accessible form. If you would like to know more, below are a selection of resources from my teachers, and other reputable sources. They include more detail on the above topics, and in many cases links to the scientific studies on which the information is based. I also include links to some of my own articles where relevant.
[iv] Dr S Ballantyne and S. Toth, "The Whole View episode 479: Stress, Coffee, Breakfast and Walking," 25th October 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.thepaleomom.com/podcast-stress-coffee-breakfast/?ref=909.