Stress Interrupts the Mind-Body Connection

Stress contributes to 50% of illness in the US – Healthy People 2000

When your grandmother said she was “sick with worry,” she knew what she was talking about. All kinds of stress, including worrying, can make you sick. Since the time of the Greeks, physicians have known that the mind can affect the course of illness. But with the rise of modern medicine, the body was treated separately from the workings of the mind. Now this mind-body connection is being rediscovered: science can now prove that stress causes a physiologic response which can impact many bodily systems.

“Stress” was defined by medical researcher Hans Seyle in the 1940’s as the body’s response to a threatening event which evokes the “fight or flight” response. This can be life-saving but, as the late Dr Ader from the University of Rochester demonstrated, stress can impact the immune system via the nervous system. The impact of stress on the body can now be measured in the lab and, in the future, a test may reveal exactly how stress is affecting your health.

We experience stress throughout our lives and often these situations are unavoidable. Stress becomes problematic when it is turned on unnecessarily or the fight-or-flight response is not helpful. When the reaction is not turned off often enough or is turned on too frequently, the body does not get a chance to return to baseline. While stress may not be the cause of disease, it can make us more susceptible or worsen existing conditions. Perpetual stress begins to break down the body or show signs of wear and tear as follows:

  • Cardiovascular System: When stressed or startled, our hearts beat faster and harder. When this becomes chronic, it can lead to hypertension, increased risk of heart disease, or stroke.
  • Metabolism: When stressed, we crave fat, salt, and sugar and then tend to eat more often. All of this can increase the risk of type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and obesity.
  • Gastrointestinal disease: Ever feel butterflies in your stomach? Or feel the effects of stress on your gastrointestinal tract? Ulcers, gastrointestinal reflux, and irritable bowel disease are all strongly correlated with stress.
  • Immunity and Cancer: Prolonged exposure to stress blunts the immune response making us more susceptible to infection, decreases our response to antibiotics, and increases our risk of developing diseases such as cancer.
  • Brain: Stress impacts sleep, memory, mood, and can cause headaches.
  • Aging: Chromosomal aging can be measured and it has been shown that, under chronic stress, chromosomes can look 10 – 17 years older.

While stress-related illness is not unique to the modern age, our abundance of technology has introduced unique challenges. We are constantly bombarded by images of death, illness, and violence in the media. We live at ever widening distances from friends, family, and nature. Because technology enables us to do practically anything while seated, exercise has declined. Our defenses against stress — restful sleep, good diet, exercise, and support network of family, friends and community – have eroded.

Managing stress first takes recognizing the connection between stress and health, and then making a commitment to addressing it. The goal is not to become relaxed all the time or eliminate stressors but to be able to turn off the response when not it is needed. Defy stress by finding balance.

Just as stress and responses to stress vary from person to person, your approach to managing stress should be uniquely yours.

  • Exercise: Decreases the stress response while beneficial in so many other ways.
  • Sleep: Be mindful of the basic rhythm of daily life by establishing a regular routine for resting and rising.
  • Diet: Strive for a whole foods diet, mostly plants, as close to natural form/source as possible. Try not to turn to fat, sugar, salt, or alcohol in times of stress.
  • Social Support: Cultivate relationships with friends and family.
  • Technology Free Time: Set aside certain periods to turn off your technology.
  • Serenity Practice: Develop a daily practice that quiets the mind, such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga, or Tai Chi. Incorporate progressive muscle relaxation, hypnotherapy, prayer, spiritual practices, breathing exercises, massage, and reiki into your life. Take time to appreciate art, listen to music, garden, and spend time in nature.

Your goal in managing stress is to down-shift the stress response and turn on the positive pathways of the restorative nervous system (parasympathetic). Like any skill, this takes practice on a regular basis; even devoting 5 minutes a day, if that’s all you have, will reap rewards. If you need help dealing with chronic stress, let your physician know. You can help your brain and body work together to manage stress and achieve optimal health.


· The End of Stress as We Know It by Bruce McEwen

· Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky


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