Stress: The Great Drain on Our Health Account



Each season seems to have a distinct ambience. The winter brings with it excitement for the holidays and the promise of a new year. Spring has the feeling of fresh starts and new growth. Summer carries thoughts of BBQs and fun in the sun. But fall… Few things signal a return to the stress of reality like the end of summer. 

As children, September meant a new academic year, complete with the stress of sussing out new teachers, navigating new social groups and managing the onslaught of homework. As adults, the end of summer includes supporting our kids through the anxiety of returning to school (which, depending on their age, may include anything from providing a comforting shoulder to practicing Mother Theresa-like patience as your teenager decides you are the perfect outlet for their social angst) and endless lists of to-dos and to-buys in order to set them – armed, prepared and well dressed – on the path to academic success, all within the context of flu season and precious few remaining vacation days. It’s really no wonder we’re always commenting on the beautiful fall colours – our eyes are constantly cast upwards as we ask for strength. 

And so, with the summer rapidly coming to a close, I thought it would be the perfect time to take a look at stress – what it is, how it works, how much is too much, and most importantly, what we can do about it. 

In order to answer the first question, we need to briefly revisit grade 11 biology. As you may recall, our body has two basic operating systems; the “fight or flight” system and the “rest and digest” system.  Both of these systems are vital and we need them both, but we need them in the right balance. And unfortunately, as a society, we are drastically out of balance.

Our fight-or-flight system is the one we tend to be more familiar with. It’s the one that kicks into action when we’re under stress. When our brains perceive some sort of stressor, a cascade of chemical signaling ensues that causes the release of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, which in turn causes our heart rate to increase, our blood to pump and our cells to start dumping sugar into the blood stream. Why? Because the system was designed to enable you to, well, fight or flight. The physiological response to stress is to spur you into action – which is incredibly important in evolutionary terms, as one can imagine a time when the major stressors in life were things that wanted to eat us. The problem is that our brains actually don’t differentiate between the stress of a predator and the stress of an impending deadline. Lion, job security – same physiological response, same hormones, same effect. And while that effect – the increased heart rate, high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar – is very important in short term situations (such as when you find yourself faced with a hungry lion), it’s detrimental in the long term. Our bodies were never meant to be exposed to a sustained stress response, which is why chronic stress is implicated in obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and countless others.

And unfortunately, it gets worse. Besides the direct effects of the fight-or-flight system, there is the indirect effect of commandeering our body’s primary operating system, which happens at the expense of our rest-and-digest system. In a perfect world, the rest-and-digest system would be our primary operating system; it is essentially our background programming and governs all of our maintenance functions, from immunity and energy, to metabolism and digestion, to sleep and sex drive – basically, quality of life things. Which means, if this system isn’t functioning properly or is constantly being co-opted by the fight-or-flight system, both our physical and mental-emotional health take a major hit. 

Luckily, there’s an up side. Recall I said that we have two primary operating systems, and that, by and large, they are mutually exclusive. If you’re fighting or flying, you’re not resting or digesting. But the opposite is equally true. And the same way your brain doesn’t know the difference between the stress induced by a predator vs. a deadline, it doesn’t know the difference between a calm state induced by a serene external environment vs. an internal sense of peace. This is why deep breathing practices, yoga and mindfulness techniques are so effective at managing stress – you are consciously switching your body’s operating system. 

In many aspects of society, we are incredibly over extended. We constantly hear about rising consumer debt and most of us have been guilty at some point of living beyond our means. Luckily there are tangible checks and balances that keep us aware of our financial health. But our physical health? Our body’s are indiscriminate lenders, and unless we’re listening carefully, we can be deep into debt before we ever receive a collection letter. Our fight-or-flight system is a rampant consumer – it expends tremendous amounts of energy and depletes our resources. If we’re not allowing our rest-and-digest system the time to replenish our savings account, we venture into the red, and that’s where we start to see disease and pathology and illness. 

Stress is one of the single most important determinants of health in modern society and is implicated in the vast majority of illnesses and chronic diseases. However, it is also one of the things most within our control. We can control our health account the same way we control our finances; we can make strides to minimize spending by managing stressors and replenish our savings by supporting our rest-and-digest system and nourishing our adrenal glands. So I encourage you to take a moment to do a little self-evaluation and think about how stress is impacting your health, and then take some action – start banking some health dollars and consider saving for retirement. And if you need some support on how to do this, don’t worry - we’ve got you covered in our next two instalments.