The Life-Stress Conundrum 


As much as we try to avoid it, stress remains a part of what we are as human beings. We've been shaped by it ever since we stood up on two legs to survey the African plains for potential predators all those millions of years ago. Stress was - and still is - integral to our development; it aids in the triggering of human adaptive mechanisms from the womb to the grave. At every level, stimuli from our environment - be they biological, chemical, physical, spiritual, or interpersonal - trigger epigenetic changes that "switch on" certain genes and "switch off" others. We are what we are in no small part because of stress.

But in the modern era, especially in the developed western world, we shouldn't be feeling so much of it. The days of fleeing saber-toothed tigers across the plains are long behind us, yet our biological responses to mundane, "modern" stresses (stresses that arise from non-life-threatening stimuli) are no different from the constant life-or-death encounters we as a species dealt with all those thousands of years ago. Our stress response today is a relic of those bygone days, and it remains part of our biology in much the same way that dogs have vestigial appendages like dewclaws - it is simply not needed anymore on a persistent basis. But, it is there.

Persistent stress is bad for your health. Major stress events trigger immediate and severe biochemical changes in the body. When we stress out, adrenaline is released into our system, triggering the "fight or flight" response that has kept our species alive and kicking for so long. This adrenaline constricts the peripheral blood vessels in our extremities - including the brain - while blood vessels in our core expand. The result of this is diminished small-muscle coordination and increased strength. This is why you hear stories of people exhibiting almost superhuman strength during times of extreme stress. It's also in large part why athletes like baseball pitchers "lose their feel" and hang curve balls during stressful parts of games, or throw wild, high pitches after giving up a home run. And, it is also why when a person has a 'meltdown' because of anxiety or anger, they tend to not remember what happened - this is because the limited supply of blood to the brain that is the result of restricted blood vessels prevents event retention.

Knowing this, it's it's safe to say that adrenaline isn't something you want to tap into all the time - it's a survival mechanism, not a crutch. Unfortunately, chronic stress is a problem facing millions of Americans. But even with "normal" traumatic life events - such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, witnessing a horrible accident, fighting in a war where lives are taken - post traumatic stress reactions are expected and are more normal than not. However, when adaptation is stunted or inefficient, or when the damaging effects of the stressor are persistent and cause biological conversions where the stress triggers physical responses like irritable bowels, psoriasis, environmental sensitivities, or when phobias and other irrational fears appear, the return to normal does not occur and the condition can become an anxiety disorder or a 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder'.

To combat stress, employ a technique called "flexion breathing," where deep breaths are taken and held while the large core muscles are tensed and then relaxed upon exhaling. This is "real time adrenaline mitigation," and helps to stop unwanted adrenaline production in its tracks. To fight chronic stress, grow your adaptive capacity.