Understanding chronic stress

Celeste Hendry

I have noticed that there seems to be something different in the air this fall. With the days shortening and the holiday season upon us, I have observed a higher level of stress than normal. This can certainly be attributed to how busy the summer was, coupled with the race to prepare for the oncoming winter, mixed with the regular stresses we all contend with in our daily lives. With this in mind, I wanted to delve further into the concept of stress and how it affects our physiology over the long term. 

In my previous article, I explained the reason for why we experience stress in the first place. As a recap, it is a biological mechanism designed to keep us alive when faced with immediate danger. The problem with modern society is that the things we stress about are generally not problems we can tangibly fight or run away from, and as a result we become stuck in a state of “fight-or-flight.” This is a problem for almost everyone. Rather than it being a personal issue, chronic stress is really a symptom of how society has changed over time.

When we become stressed, we release a large number of stress hormones — namely cortisol and adrenaline — that impact how our entire body functions. The faster heart rate, breathing rate, eye dilation and blood flow to the limbs can be very helpful when we need to fight or make a quick escape from danger. However, when we get stuck in this pattern of chronic stress, these hormones are still being produced. 

This long term exposure can have very harmful effects on our bodies and minds. Many common health problems we deal with can be directly caused or contributed to by chronic stress, including, but not limited to, high blood pressure, digestive problems, tight muscles, low libido, weakened immune systems, fatigue, headaches, weight gain, anxiety and depression. 

There is also an important link between inflammation and the chronic stress response. Constant low-level inflammation in the body is a big problem for a lot of people. This inflammation predisposes us to a host of autoimmune issues and is implicated in diseases such as osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pelvic pain, chronic low back pain, sciatica and more. 

Stress plays into this mechanism through the constant release of cortisol. Interestingly, cortisol actually prevents inflammation when it’s released, which is why temporarily stressful activities like exercise can actually be very helpful for inflammation. The problem with chronic stress is that cortisol is released constantly, to the point where our bodies don’t register it any more. Sort of like when you get nagged about something to the point of tuning it out. So ultimately when we are under constant stress, the base level of inflammation in our bodies tends to rise. 

I hold a strong belief that in order to effectively address a problem, it is necessary to understand it first. This is why I wanted to explain how chronic stress affects our bodies before we dive into the best ways to manage stress and start healing. As a starter, getting plenty of sleep, regular exercise, meditation, yoga and practicing gratitude each day are great techniques to address stress. 

In my next column we will further explore ways to break out of the stress pattern, and in doing so how to lead a healthier, happier life! 

(Celeste Hendry is a Gunnison chiropractor and owner of Healing Waves Chiropractic.)


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