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The Relation of Stress and Illness

The opposite of illness is optimal health. We need to improve our individual stress resilience to reach and maintain optimal health. Stress is defined as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Our interest in this article is to address the science behind the consequences of stress and present therapies and programs designed to recover from and improve resilience to stress. In order for stress to cause illness it must exceed or at least strain our adaptive capacity. Not all stress has a negative impact on our immune system and thus the relationship between stress and illness is very complex. In addition, susceptibility to stress varies from person to person and is influenced by genetic vulnerabilities, childhood exposures to trauma, coping styles, social support, religious beliefs, and personality types.

Hans Selye divided stress into 2 types with the first being eustress and the second being distress. Eustress is considered positive stress. Positive stress arising from physical, mental, or emotional demands which forces us to adapt and improves our adaptive mechanisms leading to optimal health. The opposite is distress which is considered negative stress. When distress happens we are not able to meet the demands and we will find ourselves unable to cope. This can lead to physical and emotional fatigue causing behavioral or physical problems. When we are in distress we are more likely to overreact, make poor decisions, feel confused, lose focus, feel anxious, and not perform our best.

Short term stress can boost the immune system, but unrelenting stress suppresses the immune system and can ultimately manifest in illness. Several studies show that chronic stress triggers elevations of corticosteroids that weaken immune reaction.  The physiological effects of chronic stress are persisting elevations of corticosteroids and the stress neurotransmitters, adrenaline and noradrenaline. Suppressor T cells also rise, suppressing immune function, and increasing the risk of viral infection. Stress triggers the release of histamine causing chronic mast cell activation disorders and severe broncho-constriction in asthmatics. Stress also increases the risk of diabetes and causes buildup of plaque in the arteries, with both concerns leading to cardiovascular disease and a decline in mortality rate. Emotional stress is a major contributing factor to the six leading causes of death in the United States: cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. It is estimated that anywhere between 70-90% of doctors visits to primary care physicians is related to stress, with the greatest impact of stress in illness being strongest for the most common forms of mental illness.

Although stress can cause such a negative impact on our health there exists no medication or herb that can suppress or eradicate it. That is because the impact of stress is individually experienced, influenced by factors often out of our control,  and is part of our innate system for survival. And thus stress reaches all people, of all ages, located in every part of the world. It is unavoidable, but we can train to weaken its influence and shorten its duration, avoiding the long term consequences to our physical and emotional well-being. But first we must learn to recognize it and the best way is to measure it.

Physiological Evaluation of Stress

We can measure physiological values to determine stress levels. One of the leading tools with decades of research backing it up, is heart rate variability. Heart rate variability is a calculation or ratio of the heart rate(beats) while exhaling compared to the heart rate(beats) while inhaling. This ratio is able to predict how we are handling stress. When we are under stress our nervous system is in a sympathetic dominant state and when we are relaxed we are in a parasympathetic state. We want to be balanced between these two states and not have one dominate over the other. A simple in-office test can evaluate this ratio between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system by calculating this simple ratio of heart rhythms. This calculation would not be that helpful if we did not have a means by which we could change a sympathetic dominant state. So what can we do with this information?

Treatments for Increasing Stress Resilience

We can improve our stress response to maintain and achieve optimal health through a few effective ways. The first is heart rate training, a simple, cost effective, drug-free, and time saving activity that calms our innate stress response in seconds reaching the goal to both weaken the influence and shorten the impact of stressors. Second, we can create a habit of regularly strenuous physical activity which has been shown to improve our stress resilience. Thirdly, we can focus on good sleep habits and routines(often called sleep hygiene) to allow our brains and bodies the time to repair, heal, and recover from the stressors of the day. And fourthly, we can participate in therapies that allow our nervous systems to relax and discharge all the abundant negative energy that is thrown at us or is magnetized to stick to us and hold us emotionally captive. 

Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but it does not have to dominate, suppress, or control our lives. If we are proactive and can be present when exposed to triggers or stressors we will be able to wisely navigate in calmer waters and arrive safely without becoming emotionally and physically exhausted. Our efforts now and through our lives will reduce the negative impacts stress may contribute to the onset of premature illness or death. And most importantly, by avoiding the negative feelings and emotions created by stress, we add additional happiness and joy in our present lives, which is a reward all on its own.