What's This Stress Thing Anyway

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Do I have enough money to survive till the end of the month? Will I pass my exams? Will he/she return my phone call? Am I doing something stupid? Am I gonna be bullied at school today? Am I gonna get fired?

We stress ourselves out all-day, everyday. As soon as one problem is solved, another one arises. We are constantly putting out fires. But you know what, stress and stress response by the body is a natural and necessary phenomenon.  Yes, necessary. Stick with me and read on - this stuff's pretty intriguing. A gazelle being stalked by a lion, and running for its life depends on its stress response to stay alive. The body's stress response to this sort of event is perfect. And sometimes, we have to deal with longer-term stresses, like famines. And the body is reasonably adept at this sorta thing as well. But we humans, we have a third addition - stressors from psychological and social events. Our body generates the same stress response not just in response to events, but in anticipation of them. And when these stressors go on for too long, we get sick. And that's the nub of the problem. It is a vicious circle. Problems (real and imagined) -->Stress-->Whining-->More stress--> aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh This post will change the way you think, understand, and deal with stress. So chill out, take a deep breath, and read on! Before I start sounding more like a Yoga instructor, I'm sure you're all wondering > Why are YOU talking about stress, bro? I thought you're wrote about workouts and food

Stress is an inherent part of this fitness/health realm! And I like digging into stuff - that's how I got into this fitness mumbo-jumbo in the first place. My first brush with stress was disorienting, to say the least. I was in grad school, and loving it. I had gotten back to reading books voraciously, I was actually doing school work and enjoying it. But towards the end of my second semester, I kept getting headaches, and was unable to study. After ignoring them for a bit, I went to see the doctor at the university. I was told that I was stressing out too much about school! And here I thought I was enjoying it. I was prescribed some meds which doped me out and I was kinda high all day. I stopped taking those meds, and said I could fix myself. And I did - it did not need any medication. I was making something I enjoyed into a chore, and I just had to reverse it. Not too hard! And today, I'm known as the master chiller (euphemism for being a lazy ass, but I've learned to be a glass-is-half-full kinda guy) amongst my friends and I can safely say that I've learned to handle stress pretty effectively. Of course, what works for me will not always work for you, but there's definitely something you can do about it! [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="436" caption="Hat-tip to whoever made this chart. My blueprint!"][/caption] [hr]

So what happens when you're stressed?

Let's get some definitions straight. The human body always tries to maintain homeostasis, which is keep the system in balance. A relatively newer concept is Allostasis, with the brain co-ordiating body-wide changes, often including changes in behaviour (from Saplosky). Let's not get caught up though - the concept is basically the body keeping itself stable. A stressor is thus anything that can throw the body out of the stable equilibrium. Stress response is the body's response to restore us back to equilibrium. >  And regardless of the stressor - injured, starving, too hot,too cold, or psychologically stressed - you turn on the same stress response

Yep, that's right, the stress response is the same. The way it works is like so. You are a spaceship, and you are under attack by alien forces. The captain (your brain) orders all power diverted to the shields and the guns, and turn off everything else. Think about it - nothing matters if your spaceship is destroyed, right? It is about immediate survival, let's not worry about anything else. Likewise, in the human body, long-term and expensive stuff - digestion, immune system, growth and tissue repair, reproduction - all are of reduced concern. Instead, adrenaline pumps through and your muscles are ready to explode. Your brain is sharp and clear, and your pain response is blunted. The famous "fight-or-flight" system. If you are facing a life or death situation, the body's response has you covered! But rather than these acute physical stressors, we have psychological stressors that are always "on". Which means your body keeps responding the same way - which is why you get sick so easily when working against the clock on a deadline, or keep getting headaches. You get the idea! Your body's natural cortisol (another hormone) rhythm is thrown out of whack. And what happens? - raises our blood sugar

  • weakens our immune system
  • makes our gut leaky
  • makes us hungry and crave sugar
  • reduces our ability to burn fat
  • causes hormonal imbalances
  • reduces testosterone, growth hormone, and thyroid-stimulating hormone levels
  • increases our belly fat and makes your liver fatty
  • gets you a six-pack. Am kidding! Just making sure you are still paying attention.
  • causes depression, anxiety and mood imbalances
  • contributes to cardiovascular disease

In fact, stress is at the root of all modern, chronic diseases! Long story short, the stress-response system tries to ensure short-term survival at the expense of other longer-term functions of the body. Which is why stresses should be brief, and not elongated! Read that list again. Seriously! [hr] ### Pre-empting Some Responses

I got no symptoms, so I doubt I'm really stressed out!

Unfortunately, stress is more subtle with its calling cards. Everyone reacts differently. Headaches, loss of sleep, weight gain - that's just scratching the surface. You are on a adrenalin-high for a while but a crash is around the corner. > I'm not really stressed out you know, I do yoga 5 times a week!

Yoga is awesome, no doubt about it. But it is not a one-stop-cure for stress. > Stress is always bad for you

Not at all. Stress-Response tells the body what to expect, and how to deal with a stress. Else, we might drop dead when we walk into our surprise birthday party. > Ah, stress is all over and there's really nothing you can do about it!

Aw, c'mon! > I drink 2 glasses of whisky everyday. I got stress covered.

A drink is tempting because you are hungry and craving sugar, after being stressed. And a low quantity of alcohol has shown effects of blunting the stress-response. But more often than not, alcohol induces a stress response. So, it is like piling on the coal to stoke the fire! And stress can increase alcohol consumption, leading to another vicious cycle. Check out this journal, if you want to read more. Drink coz you enjoy it and not for anything else. [hr] ### How does stress relate to weight loss?

When we are running for our lives, the body's digestive system is not really the priority. And we aren't very hungry. But we munch on snacks, binge eat - coz of stress. What's going on? Well, in the stress response, there are two hormones in particular that are secreted. One increases appetite, while another reduces appetite. Timing is crucial. One, the inhibitor (CRH) is secreted fast, and cleared fast. The other (glucocorticoid, a class of steroid hormones of which cortisol is one) is secreted slower, and cleared slower. So, once the stress is 'over', the body has an abundance of the glucocorticoids, which tell us to recover from stress - by stimulating appetite amongst other things. But because we are stressed all day, and for extended periods of time, we keep doing this stress-response thing. and after a few hours of this, your glucocoritoids are elevated all the time. That's why you keep eating those cookies and muffins, and the entire snack table. Added to this is a reduced ability to burn fat (coz the body needs a faster source of energy during crisis) - and weight gain is the result of stress! Note: Am not saying stress is the only reason for weight gain but it is one of the main factors. Not being stressed and eating 10 muffins a day will make you fat! [hr] ### Tips to reduce stress

  1. Take a vacation. Numerous studies have shown the awesome effects of taking a vacation. People who vacationed had 1/8th the chances of a heart attack diagnosis, another study found that people were able to get one hour more of quality sleep. Increased happiness, reduced work stress, improved mood - so many things from a simple vacation. Of course, if your vacation is an action-packed frenzy of rushing from one place to the next, it might not reduce stress. My kinda vacation involves a lot of sleeping, a lot of eating, a lot of lying around and reading, and about a couple of hours of active stuff.
  2. Exercise. Endorphins are good for you.
  3. Reduce the noise pollution around you. I hate noise, and find it impossible to focus on stuff when it is loud!
  4. The antidote to chronic stress - pleasure. So, practice pleasure!
  5. Get a pet!
  6. Meditate.
  7. Eat Real Food!
  8. Drop those veggie and seed oils. Replace them with coconut oil, butter, ghee! Too much omega-6 (in the veggie and seed oils) produces a stress response in your body. We dont want that.
  9. Less is more. Do less things, make your life less hectic. Enjoy the stuff you are doing more.
  10. Take a break from electronics periodically. Entertain yourself and your family in a more old-fashioned manner - figure it out!
  11. Plan your life better. Prioritize what you need to get done this week, this month, and this year. Work towards them. Use it as a barometer - "Do I want to add ? Does it make sense in terms of what I've planned". This will help you in saying no, and to avoid over-committing.
  12. Do what you love. Don't waste your time doing things that you find boring. Obvious, right? But we waste so much of our time trying to fit in, or do what is 'cool'. Scratch all that - do what you wanna be doing.
  13. Avoid assholes. They make life a pain. I was one, until I grew a brain. Damn, that rhymes!
  14. I highly recommend "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" by Robert Sapolsky. Read it to understand more!

That's all folks. Now, go on out there and be active in reducing stress in your life. And as a bonus, here's another tested method to reduce stress - share this article on Facebook and Twitter ;)

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