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Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Stress Can Do to You

There was once a quote (which I can’t seem to find in its exactitude) that said something to the effect of “If you're fighting an enemy that you just can't seem to hit, you may have to settle for the death of a thousand cuts." So you can die just as easily from a thousand little cuts as you can from one deep cut. 
So it is with stress.  Need I remind you of the phrase “stress kills?”  When this catch phrase first came out, it conjured up thoughts of some type of evil and pervasive force know as “stress” or an emotionally overwhelming event that not even the most hardened survivor could withstand. 

Now, when we think “stress kills” we associate it with more of a low-grade constant than an extreme event-like an irritating family member that is constantly at your side, needling you until you can’t take it another second and you want to rip their head off. 

The human fight or flight mechanism was meant to send a surge of energy in the form of sugar and hormone release to help us fend off serious danger.
Way back when, these dangers lurked around every corner.  You might be considered dinner to a mountain lion or be running for cover in a violent storm, or fighting to the death with a neighboring tribesman.  Those were some serious stressors-250,000 years ago.  Today, it looks a lot like this: 

Brriiiinnng!!!  After only 5 hours of sleep, it’s 5:00 am and another beautiful day in Southern California!  Time to open the blinds, get that coffee on, find that newspaper, walk the dog, make the lunches and get the shower out of the way before the kids get up. 
Too late. Number one child is already up and throwing a tantrum because she can't find the jeans she plans on wearing to school today.  "What are they doing in the wash?" she says, "I didn't put them there!"  "No, you left them in a ball on the floor in the hallway so I assumed they were dirty," you tell her.  "Well they weren't! Now I have nothing to wear today!" she shouts behind her as she slams her bedroom door-which secretly makes you happy because maybe, the slamming door will wake up child number two and you won't have to resort to turning his mattress upside down and spilling him onto the floor in order to get him out of bed.  Unfortunately for him, no sound is emanating from his room.  You start to make your way down the hall…..
Now that the kids are finally out the door you have precisely ten minutes to get yourself showered and out the door to work-yet another morning that you'll have to resort to putting on your make-up in the car; something you keep promising yourself you won't do anymore-it's so dangerous!  But thankfully the motionless LA traffic always makes it possible.
You haven't even arrived at work yet and your boss is already calling on your cell phone going on and on about something. You have no idea what she's talking about and just hope you can sneak behind your desk and assess the situation before she notices you’ve arrived and starts demanding answers.
Now, after running around the office all day like a chicken with your head cut off all the while fielding ten to fifteen "personal" phone calls from your husband, son, daughter, and mother (don't they know you're trying to work here!)-it's just about time to go home-thank God! 
Now that’s stress-2012 style. About to become something or someone’s dinner? Probably not.  In danger from exposure to the elements?  Probably not that either.  The stress of daily life in the Paleolithic era and the stress of being stuck in traffic with an angry spouse or boss or child coming after you look no different to your body.  It doesn’t know the difference between “what can I make for dinner?” and “how can I escape from this wild animal that wants to make dinner out of me?” The physiological response is still the same.  The only difference is back then, the stressors would come and go (except for the challenge of finding an available food source-no small concern.) 

In today’s world, if we’re not stressed out by the morning routine, or what’s going on at the office, or the long commute home, then it’s money issues, school, job loss, relationship difficulties, more errands to run than time to do them.  It’s constant stress which over time can compromise the immune system and cause real damage to your body; specifically the adrenal glands where biochemical reactions to constant adrenal stress can produce the following physiological responses (biological protective mechanisms): 
  • Can contribute to a constant cortisol release which encourages fat storage particularly around the mid-section.
  •  Stimulates appetite.
  •  Increases blood sugar to fuel body during stress which if not burned, gets stored as fat. 
  •  Stimulates the production of fat (see previous.)   
  •  Blocks the breakdown of fat
  • Contributes to apathy, anxiety, and depression.
So what can you do about it?  Stress is a necessary part of our lives; it’s actually a positive thing.  Without it, our level of comfort would be so great as to completely abolish motivation.  There are “good” stresses in life such as working through the physical pain of exercise, or planning an event with careful attention to detail like a wedding.  But most of the time, we are bombarded by outside stimuli that becomes overwhelming emotionally and greatly impacts our physical well-being.  That’s when strategies such as the ones below can help:
  • Delegate more tasks either at work or at home to others that can help distribute workloads more evenly.
  • Create a “serenity” plan with strategies that can help calm the nervous system and lower cortisol excretion i.e. go for walks, listen to music, meditate, cook, paint, have sex, read a good novel-any other activities that you find relaxing.  Schedule this down time on a regular basis.
  • Try Restorative Yoga variations, stretch classes, or lower intensity Pilates classes.
  • Stay adequately hydrated and nourished with proper nutrition to boost immune health, energy and overall well-being.  Poor diet and no exercise place a good deal of stress on the body’s physiology. 
  • Experiment with supplements that can help such as GABA, 5HTP, Sam-e, St. John’s Wort, magnesium, B-vitamins (they’re not known as stress vitamins for nothing.)  Consult your alternative healthcare practitioner to find out which of these supplements if any, are right for you.
The last word on lowering stress?  Sleep!  Get your 7-9 hours each night. You’ll be surprised what an impact that will have on every area of your life.

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Fitness expert and integrative performance coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at © 2011 Jinifit, Inc.

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