by Michael T. Murray, N.D.
WHAT IS STRESS?
All of us know stress. In fact, most of us have accepted the fact that everyday stress is part of modern living. Job pressures; family arguments; financial pressures; and running late are just a few of the "stressors" most of us are faced with on a daily basis. Although we most often think one of these types of stressors are what cause us to feel "stressed out," technically speaking a stressor may be almost any disturbance - heat or cold, environmental toxins, toxins produced by microorganisms, physical trauma, a strong emotional reaction - that can trigger a number of biological changes to produce what is commonly known as the "stress response."
Fortunately for us, control mechanisms in the body are geared toward counteracting the everyday stresses of life. Most often the stress response is so mild it goes entirely unnoticed. However, if stress is extreme, unusual, or long lasting, these control mechanisms can be overwhelming and quite harmful. In these situations especially it is critical to utilize natural approaches to reduce stress and its effects.
Have you ever been suddenly frightened? That is the extreme end of the stress response. What you were feeling was adrenaline surging through your body. Adrenaline is released from your adrenal glands, a pair of glands that lie on top of each kidney. Adrenaline was designed to give the body that extra energy boost to escape from danger. Unfortunately, it can also make us feel stressed, anxious, and nervous.
In modern life many people experience stress, but may not be able to tell you exactly what it is that is causing them to feel stressed out. What these people may be noticing are the side effects of stress, such as insomnia, depression, fatigue, headache, upset stomach, digestive disturbances, and irritability.
Before discussing methods and tools for dealing effectively with stress, it is important to understand the stress response. Ultimately, the success of any stress management program is dependent on its ability to improve an individual's immediate and long-term response to stress.
The stress response is actually part of a larger response known as the "general adaptation syndrome." To fully understand how to combat stress, it is important that we take a closer look at the general adaptation syndrome. The general adaptation syndrome is broken down into three phases: alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. These phases are largely controlled and regulated by the adrenal glands and our nervous system.
THE GENERAL ADAPTATION SYNDROME
The initial response to stress is the alarm reaction that is often referred to as the "fight or flight response." The fight or flight response is triggered by reactions in the brain which ultimately cause the pituitary gland (the master gland of the entire hormonal system of the body, which is located at the center of the base of the brain) to release a hormone called adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which causes the adrenals to secrete adrenaline and other stress-related hormones, like Cortisol.
The fight or flight response is designed to counteract danger by mobilizing the body's resources for immediate physical activity. As a result, the heart rate and force of contraction of the heart increases to provide blood to the areas that may need to response to the stressful situation. Blood is shunted away from the skin and internal organs, except the heart and lung, while at the same time the amount of blood supplying needed oxygen and glucose to the muscles and brain is increased. The rate of breathing increases to supply necessary oxygen to the heart, brain, and exercising muscle. Sweat production increases to eliminate toxic compounds produced by the body and to lower body temperature. Production of digestive secretions is severely reduced since digestive activity is not critical for counteracting stress. And, blood sugar levels are increased dramatically as the liver dumps stored glucose into the bloodstream to provide a quick and easy source of energy.
While the alarm phase is usually short-lived, the next phase - the resistance reaction - allows the body to continue fighting a stressor long after the effects of the fight or flight response have worn off. Other hormones, such as Cortisol and other corticosteroids secreted by the adrenal cortex, are largely responsible for the resistance reaction. For example, these hormones stimulate the conversion of protein to energy, so that the body has a large supply of energy long after glucose stores are depleted, as well as promote the retention of sodium to keep blood pressure elevated.
In addition to providing the necessary energy and circulatory changes required to deal effectively with stress, the resistance reaction provides those changes required for meeting an emotional crisis, performing a strenuous task, and fighting infection. However, while the effects of adrenal hormones are quite necessary when the body is faced with danger, prolonging the resistance reaction or continued stress increase the risk of significant disease (including diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer) and results in the final stage of the general adaptation syndrome: exhaustion.
Prolonged stress places a tremendous load on many organ systems, especially the heart, blood vessels, adrenals, and immune system. Exhaustion may manifest by a total collapse of a body function or a collapse of specific organs.
Table 1.1 - Conditions Strongly Linked to Stress
Premenstrual tension syndrome
(adult onset - type 2)
Irritable bowel syndrome
STRESS: A HEALTHY VIEW
The "godfather" of modern stress research was Hans Selye, M.D. Having spent most of his life studying stress, this brilliant man probably had the best perspective on the role of stress in our lives. According to Dr. Selye, stress in its self should not be viewed as a negative factor. It is not the stressor that determines the response; instead it is the individuals internal reaction that triggers the response. This internal reaction is highly individualized. What one person may experience as stress, the next person may view entirely differently. Dr. Selye perhaps summarized his view best in this passage from his book The Stress of Life (McGraw Hill, New York, NY, 1978):
No one can live without experiencing some degree of stress all the time. You may think that only serious disease or intensive physical or mental injury can cause stress. This is false. Crossing a busy intersection, exposure to a draft, or even sheer joy are enough to activate the body's stress mechanisms to some extent. Stress is not even necessarily bad for you; it is also the spice of life, for any emotion, any activity, causes stress. But, of course, your system must be prepared to take it. The same stress which makes one person sick can be an invigorating experience for another.
CAN STRESS BE MEASURED?
One useful tool to assess the role that stress may play in a person's life is the "social readjustment rating scale" developed by Holmes and Rahe.1 The scale was originally designed to predict the risk of a serious disease due to stress. Various life-changing events are numerically rated according to their potential to cause disease……You will notice that even events commonly viewed as positive, such as an outstanding personal achievement, carry stress.
Many naturopathic physicians assess stress based on salivary levels of the stress hormone Cortisol. Salivary Cortisol levels are reproducible, comparable to plasma levels, and easy to assess. Salivary Cortisol levels generally show a sharp rise upon awakening and during the first hour after waking up. Generally, an initially overactive acute stress response results in elevated Cortisol levels, while more chronic stress, insomnia, or depression may blunt this effect.
Another popular test used in combination with salivary Cortisol level testing is measuring DHEA levels. The classic pattern associated with chronic stress is elevated Cortisol combined with reduced DHEA, indicating a shift toward stress hormone production and away from sex hormone production. This pattern is often associated with anxiety and depression. Adrenal exhaustion is characterized by low Cortisol and low DHEA. Adrenal exhaustion is a common side effect of continual high stress. It is also seen with the use of steroid drugs, like prednisone, in the treatment of allergic or inflammatory diseases.
The key statement Selye made is "your system must be prepared to take it." It is my goal to help prepare and bolster your stress-fighting system.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STRESS AND ANXIETY?
When we experience stress, it is often accompanied by feelings of anxiety. Technically, anxiety is defined as "an unpleasant emotional state ranging from mild unease to intense fear." Anxiety differs from fear, in that while fear is a rational response to a real danger, anxiety usually lacks a clear or realistic cause. Though some anxiety is normal and, in fact, healthy, higher levels of anxiety are not only uncomfortable, but are linked to all of the issues with long-term stress.
Anxiety is often accompanied by a variety of symptoms. The most common symptoms relate to the chest, such as heart palpitations (awareness of a more forceful or faster heart beat), throbbing or stabbing pains, a feeling of tightness and inability to take in enough air, and a tendency to sigh or hyperventilate. Tension in the muscles of the back and neck often leads to headaches, back pains, and muscle spasms. Other symptoms can include excessive sweating, dryness of the mouth, dizziness, digestive disturbances, and the constant need to urinate or have a bowel movement.
Severe anxiety will often produce what are known as "panic attacks" - intense feelings of fear. Panic attacks may occur independent of anxiety, but are most often associated with generalized anxiety or agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is defined as an intense fear of being in wide-open spaces, crowds, or uncomfortable social situations. As a result, most people with agoraphobia become housebound. How common are panic attacks? Very, It is estimated that about 15% of the United States population experience a panic attack in their lifetime, and 3% report regular panic attacks.
EFFECTIVE STRESS MANAGEMENT
In order to deal with stress effectively it is critical that an individual concentrate on five equally important areas. Lack of attention to any of these key areas will ultimately lead to a breakdown in the system, much as your car requires essential components like tires, a battery, gas, a steering wheel, an engine, and a transmission. Each one of these facets of stress management is very important; as they weave together a cohesive fabric that supports us in dealing with the challenges of life. Undoubtedly, you have heard the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link - well that is certainly true. So, in our stress management program we have to work to make sure that all of the links are strong. Here are the five key areas of focus in developing an effective stress management program:
Develop positive coping strategies.
Get a good night's sleep.
Stabilize blood sugar levels.
Nourish your body and brain.
Manage your life.
The following chapters detail the specific methods to support these five key areas. Remember, each area is as critical as the next. That said, the list above is somewhat in order of importance. In addition to these areas of focus, sometimes specific natural products can be used to help dampen the stress response and/or support the adrenal glands.
DEVELOP POSITIVE COPING STRATEGIES
Whether you are currently aware of it or not, you have a pattern for coping with stress. Unfortunately, most people have found patterns and methods that ultimately do not support good health. If you are to be truly successful in coping with stress, negative coping patterns must be identified and replaced with the positive ways of coping described in this book. Try to identify below any negative or destructive coping patterns you may have developed:
* Dependence on chemicals Drugs,
* Legal and illicit Alcohol Tobacco
* Too much television
* Emotional outbursts
* Feelings of helplessness
* Excessive behavior
The United States appears to be a nation of addicts. The level of addiction ranges from the responsible person who "can't get started in the morning" without a cup of coffee to the strung out crack addict. Check out these sobering statistics.
Cups of coffee consumed daily
People drink 6 or more cups of coffee daily
People are addicted to cocaine
Of adults smoke at least half a pack of cigarettes daily
Of the population are addicted to alcohol
Of the population consume more than 4 alcoholic drinks daily
Tranquilizers like Valium, Xanax, Aroblen, and Lunesta are swallowed each year
Often people claim that they smoke, drink alcohol, or take drugs because it calms them. In reality, these substances actually complicate matters. The relaxation or chemical high from these drugs is short-lived and ultimately lead to adding even more stress to the system. Individuals suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, or other psychological conditions must absolutely stop drinking coffee and other sources of caffeine, and alcohol. They also need to quit smoking and using recreational drugs. In short, these people must choose health.
THE NEED TO BET HIGH
There appears to be an inherent need for humans to get high. Does this need to be the chemical high that most Americans seek? No. Think back to
some fantastic moments in your life. Most of us have experienced an extreme natural high at least once in our lives. What was the moment in your life that seemed almost magical? Was it the first time your wife or lover said they loved you? How about the birth of your first child? Or, how about when you accomplished one of your dreams? Didn't these moments seem almost unreal? Did you feel as if you were naturally high?
All the drugs that act on the brain do so by mimicking or enhancing the activity of natural compounds already present in the brain. Within you lie all the chemicals required for every emotion you can possibly experience. The key is not to take drugs to try to duplicate these feelings, but rather to learn how to create the feelings inside of you so that you can conjure them up whenever you want. Your mind is such a powerful tool in determining how you feel. You can use your mind to create powerful positive emotions that can give you a natural high that can help you cope with stress.
Here is how you can do it. First recreate a powerful positive experience in your life. Do your best to relive those feelings to the fullest. Turn up the dial of intensity as high as you possibly can. Put this book down and do it now.
How do you feel now? It is within you to experience more of the feelings that you really want to have in life. It's easy for us to be moved by incredible feelings of love, appreciation, and energy when we recall powerful positive events in our lives. In particular, I believe that we are wired to experience and express gratitude in our lives. Recalling positive feelings and moments on a regular basis conditions your mind to continue to experience these emotions, which will allow you to be in a more resourceful state of mind when dealing with the stress of life.
All of this may sound a bit funny to you, but believe me it does work. In an effort to provide some guidance in helping you develop a mental attitude that can help deal with stress I offer seven key steps below.
SEVEN STEPS TO A STRESS-BUSTING ATTITUDE
STEP 1 - BECOME AN OPTIMIST
The first step in developing a positive mental attitude is to become an optimist rather than a pessimist. Fortunately, we are, by nature, optimists. Optimism is a vital component of good health and an ally in the healing process. Focus on the positives even in challenging situations. What distinguishes an optimist from a pessimist is the way in which they explain both good and bad events.
STEP 2 - BECOME AWARE OF SELF-TALK
We all talk to ourselves. There is a constant dialogue taking place in our heads. Our self-talk makes an impression on our subconscious mind. In order to develop or maintain a positive mental attitude you must guard against negative self-talk. Become aware of your self-talk and then consciously work to imprint positive self-talk on the subconscious mind. Two powerful tools for creating positive self-talk are questions and affirmations, Steps 3 and 4.
STEP 3 - ASK BETTER QUESTIONS
One of the most powerful tools that I have found useful in improving the quality of self-talk and hence the quality of life, is a series of questions originally given to me by Anthony Robbins, author of the bestsellers Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within. According to Tony, the quality of your life is equal to the quality of the questions you habitually ask yourself. Tony's assumption is based on his belief that whatever question you ask your brain - you will get an answer.
Let's look at the following example: An individual is met with a particular challenge or problem. He or she can ask a number of questions when in this situation. Questions many people may ask in this circumstance include: "Why does this always happen to me?" Or, "Why am I always so stupid?" Do they get answers to these questions? Do the answers build self-esteem? Does the problem keep reappearing? What would be a higher quality question? How about, "This is a very interesting situation, what do I need to learn from this situation so that it never happens again?" Or, how about "What can I do to make this situation better?"
In another example, let's look at an individual who suffers from depression. What are some questions they might be asking themselves that may not be helping their situation? How about - "Why am I always so depressed?" "Why do things always seem to go wrong for me?" "Why am I so unhappy?"
What are some better questions they may want to ask themselves? How about - "What do I need to do to gain more enjoyment and happiness in my life?" "What do I need to commit to doing in order to have more happiness and energy in my life?" After they have answered these questions, they should ask themselves this one - "If I had happiness and high energy levels right now, what would it feel like?" - You will be amazed at how powerful questions can be in your life.
When the mind is searching for answers to these questions, it is reprogramming your subconscious into believing you have an abundance of energy. Unless there is a physiological reason for the chronic fatigue, such as anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or some serious disease, it won't take long before your subconscious believes.
Regardless of the situation, asking better questions is bound to improve your attitude. If you want to have a better life, simply ask better questions. It sounds simple, because it is. If you want more energy, excitement, and/ or happiness in your life, simply ask yourself the following questions on a consistent basis.
1. What am I most happy about in my life right now? Why does that make me happy? How does that make me feel?
2. What am I most excited about in my life right now? Why does that make me excited? How does that make me feel?
3. What am I most grateful about in my life right now? Why does that make me grateful? How does that make me feel?
4. What am I enjoying most about my life right now? What about that do I enjoy? How does that make me feel?
5. What am I committed to in my life right now? Why am I committed to that? How does that make me feel?
6. Who do I love? Who loves me? How does that make me feel?
7. What must I do today to achieve my long-term goal? Why is it important for me to achieve my long-term goal? How does it make me feel to know that I am making steps to achieve my long-term goal?
STEP 4 - EMPLOY POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS
An affirmation is a statement with some emotional intensity behind it. Positive affirmations can make imprints on the subconscious mind to create a healthy, positive self image. In addition, affirmations can actually fuel the changes you desire. You may want to have the following affirmations in plain sight to recite them over the course of the day:
I am blessed with an abundance of energy! Love, joy, and happiness flow through me with every heartbeat. I am thankful to God for all of my good fortune!
YES I CAN!
Here are some very simple guidelines for creating your own affirmations. Have fun with it! Positive affirmations can make you feel really good if you follow these guidelines.
* Always phrase an affirmation in the present tense. Imagine that it has
already come to pass.
* Always phrase the affirmation as a positive statement. Do not use the words not or never.
* Do your best to totally associate with the positive feelings that are generated by the affirmation.
* Keep the affirmation short and simple, but full of feeling. Be creative.
* Imagine yourself really experiencing what you are affirming.
* Make the affirmation personal to you and full of meaning.
Using the above guidelines and examples, write down five affirmations that apply to you. State these affirmations aloud while you are taking your shower or driving, or when you are praying.
STEP 5 - SET POSITIVE GOALS
Learning to set goals is another powerful method for building a positive attitude and raising self-esteem. Goals can be used to create a "success cycle." Achieving goals helps you feel better about yourself, and the better you feel about yourself, the more likely you will achieve your goals. Here are some guidelines to use when setting goals:
STATE THE GOAL IN POSITIVE TERMS. Do not use any negative words in your goal statement. For example it is better to say "I enjoy eating healthy, low-calorie, nutritious foods" than "I will not eat sugar, candy, ice cream, and other fattening foods." Remember, always state the goal in positive terms and do not use any negative words in the goal statement.
MAKE YOUR GOAL ATTAINABLE AND REALISTIC. Again, goals can be used to create a success cycle and positive self image. Little things add up to make a major difference in the way you feel about yourself.
BE SPECIFIC. The more clearly your goal is defined, the more likely you are to reach it. For example, if you want to lose weight - What is the weight you desire? What is the body fat percentage or measurements you desire? Clearly define what it is you want to achieve.
STATE THE GOAL IN THE PRESENT TENSE, NOT THE FUTURE TENSE. In order to reach your goal, you have to believe you have already attained it. You must literally program yourself to achieve the goal. See and feel yourself having already achieved the goal and success will be yours. Remember always state your goal in the present tense.
Any voyage begins with one step and is followed by many other steps. Remember to set short-term goals that can be used to help you achieve your long-term goals. Get into the habit of asking yourself the following question each morning and evening: "What must I do today to achieve my long-term goal?"
STEP 6 - PRACTICE POSITIVE VISUALIZATIONS
Positive visualization or imagery is another powerful tool in creating health, happiness, or success. Many believe that we have to be able to see our lives the way we want them to be before it happens. In terms of ideal health, you absolutely must picture yourself in ideal health if you truly want to experience this state. You can use visualization in all areas of your life, but especially for your health. In fact, some of the most promising research on the power of visualization involves enhancing the immune system in the treatment of cancer. Be creative and have fun with positive visualizations and you will soon find yourself living your dreams. It is our dreams that propel us as we roll through this life. They are powerful and inspirational. In fact, the famous author Anatole France said something about dreams and life that really hits home - "existence would be intolerable if we were never to dream."
STEP 7 - LAUGH LONG AND OFTEN
Humor may be the most powerful stress-buster around. By laughing frequently and taking a lighter view of life, you will also find that life is much more enjoyable and fun. Researchers are discovering that laughter enhances the immune system and promotes improved physiology. Recent medical research has also confirmed that laughter:
Enhances blood flow to the body's extremities and improves cardiovascular function.
Plays an active part in the body's release of endorphins and other natural mood-elevating and pain-killing chemicals.
Improves the transfer of oxygen and nutrients to internal organs.
CALMING THE MIND AND BODY
Another important step in fighting stress is learning to calm the mind and body. Among the easiest methods to learn are relaxation exercises. The goal of relaxation techniques is to produce a physiological response known as a relaxation response — a response that is exactly opposite to the stress response, and which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Although an individual may relax simply by sleeping, watching television, or reading a book, relaxation techniques are designed specifically to produce the relaxation response.
Relaxation response is a term coined in the early 1970s by Harvard professor and cardiologist, Herbert Benson, to describe a physiological response that he found in people who meditate that is just the opposite of the stress response. With the stress response, the sympathetic nervous system dominates. It is designed to protect us against immediate danger. As mentioned above, the relaxation response activates the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system controls bodily functions such as digestion, breathing, and heart rate during periods of rest, relaxation, visualization, meditation, and sleep. Although the sympathetic nervous system is designed to protect against immediate danger, the parasympathetic system is designed for repair, maintenance, and restoration of the body.
The relaxation response can be achieved through a variety of techniques. It doesn't matter which technique you choose, because all techniques have the same physiological effect - a state of deep relaxation. The most popular techniques are meditation, prayer, progressive relaxation, self-hypnosis, and biofeedback. To produce the desired long-term health benefits, the patient should use the relaxation technique for at least 5-10 minutes each day.
Table 2.1 - The Stress Response
The heart rate and force of contraction of the heart increase to provide blood to areas necessary to respond to the stressful situation.
Blood is shunted away from the skin and internal organs, except the heart and lungs, while the amount of blood supplying required oxygen and glucose to the muscles and brain is increased.
The rate of breathing increases to supply necessary oxygen to the heart, brain, and exercising muscle.
Sweat production increases to eliminate toxic compounds produced by the body, and to lower body temperature.
Production of digestive secretions is severely reduced because digestive activity is not critical to counteracting stress.
Blood sugar levels are raised dramatically as the liver dumps stored glucose into the blood stream.
Table 2.2 - The Relaxation Response
The heart rate is reduced and the heart beats more efficiently. Blood pressure is reduced.
Blood is shunted towards internal organs, especially those organs involved in digestion.
The rate of breathing decreases as oxygen demand is reduced during periods of rest.
Sweat production diminishes, because a person who is calm and relaxed does not experience nervous perspiration.
Production of digestive secretions is increased, greatly improving digestion.
Blood sugar levels are maintained in the normal range.
LEARNING HOW TO BREATHE
Producing deep relaxation with any relaxation technique requires learning how to breathe. Have you ever noticed how a baby breathes? With each breath the baby's abdomen rises and falls because the baby is breathing with its diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. If you are like most adults, you tend to fill only your upper chest because you do not utilize the diaphragm. Shallow breathing tends to produce tension and fatigue.
One of the most powerful methods of producing less stress and more energy is by breathing with the diaphragm. By using the diaphragm to breathe, a person dramatically changes their physiology. It literally activates the relaxation centers in the brain. Here is a 10-step technique for learning diaphragmatic breathing.
Find a comfortable and quiet place to lie down or sit.
Place your feet slightly apart. Place one hand on your abdomen near your navel. Place the other hand on your chest.
You will be inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.
Concentrate on your breathing. Note which hand is rising and falling with each breath.
Gently exhale most of the air in your lungs.
Inhale while slowly counting to 4. As you inhale, slightly extend your abdomen, causing it to rise about 1 inch. Make sure that you are not moving your chest or shoulders.
As you breathe in, imagine the warmed air flowing in. Imagine this warmth flowing to all parts of your body.
Pause for 1 second, then slowly exhale to a count of 4. As you exhale, your abdomen should move inward.
As the air flows out, imagine all your tension and stress leaving your body.
Repeat the process until a sense of deep relaxation is achieved.
One of the most popular techniques for producing the relaxation response is progressive relaxation. The technique is based on a very simple procedure of comparing tension with relaxation. Many people are not aware of the sensation of relaxation. In progressive relaxation, an individual is taught what it feels like to relax by comparing relaxation with muscle tension.
The basic technique is to contract a muscle forcefully for a period of 1-2 seconds and then give way to a feeling of relaxation in that muscle. The procedure systematically goes through all the muscles of the body, progressively producing a deep state of relaxation. The procedure begins with contracting the muscles of the face and neck, then the upper arms and chest, followed by the lower arms and hands. The process is repeated progressively down the body, from the abdomen through the buttocks, thighs, and calves, to the feet. This whole process is repeated two or three times. This technique is often used in the treatment of anxiety and insomnia.
These stress-reducing techniques may seem fairly simplistic, but considerable medical research has demonstrated that significant results are possible when applying them in the treatment of many stress-related illnesses. Do not underestimate the innate healing power of the human body and mind. Employing these exercises to condition your attitude and promote the relaxation response is extremely powerful medicine - with no side effects!