What is Stress?
Simply put, stress is abnormal disruption to homeostasis. If you remember back to 9th grade biology, homeostasis is the simultaneous steady and dynamic state of equilibrium that our body processes ceaselessly working to maintain.
Stress can be from an external source, like the sustained exposure of loud noise in the urban center.
Stress can come from an internal source, like increased blood pressure from too much salt in the diet, chronic or acute pain, or continuous unpleasant thoughts. The idea that our thoughts create stress is included in the western definition of stress, acknowledging the mind-body connection as it relates to human health.
Our bodies are designed to fluidly transition between states of stress and rest. It is the constant state of stress that takes its toll and has real consequences.
“Fight or flight” activates the sympathetic nervous system and “rest and digest” describes the parasympathetic nervous system. We’ll come back to this notion in Part II.
Our body’s “fight or flight” reaction is a protective mechanism, shunting blood from the organs and sending it to the periphery. When our ancestors encountered a danger (like a saber toothed tiger), this mechanism gave them more energy and strength to either escape or defend themselves against their attacker.
In modern times, the types of stressors we encounter tend to be different and more self-imposed. For example, when your boss walks into your office unexpectedly, you break into a sweat, and your heart starts pounding, even though you’re doing everything right. These stresses are real, and add up in the course of a day/week/year, though we’re hardly aware of it until we find anxiety and/or depression are our a prevailing moods and we have a health issue that seemingly snuck up on us.
Chronic Stress and Your Body
It stands to reason that continuous or prolonged stress overtaxes all the systems in your body. Stress can lead to anxiety, depression, heart disease, obesity, asthma, muscle tension or pain, digestive upset, insomnia, substance abuse, and premature aging (of chromosomal material, no less), and more- the list is long.
Research has found that in prolonged stress, PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), and severe depression, the size of the hippocampus will shrink. The hippocampus is part of the brain’s limbic system, where memory and learning and emotions are processed and stored. Trust us on this: you do not want your hippocampus to shrink!
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the overall feeling of worry, fear, and uneasiness. Anxiety in most cases is an over reaction to stress. Having this feeling continuously can lead to anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, which sometimes mimic heart attacks, and should be attended to right away to rule that out. Other common anxiety disorders are obsessive-compulsive behavior, phobias, and PTSD.
What is Depression?
The research attributes depression to a combination of factors: genetic, environmental, biological, and psychological. Depression can run in families, can be associated with socio-economic groups, can be due to an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain, or the result of the loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, a traumatic experience, or any stressful situation.
Western medicine’s description of depression covers a swath of signs and symptoms, including
- A prolonged feeling of sadness, anxiety, or emptiness inside
- A pervasive feeling of pessimism or hopelessness
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, or helplessness
- Irritability, restlessness
- Loss of interest in activities or hobbies, including sex
- Decrease in energy and fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and loss of memory
- Sleep disorders
- Overeating, or loss of appetite
- Suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts
- Aches or pains, headaches, digestive problems, or cramps that do not ease even with treatment
Depression is not something intangible: studies using fMRI’s show that the parts of the brain involved in mood, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior appear different with people who have depression.
Putting it All Together: How To Deal with Stress, Anxiety, and Depression?
Western medicine usually prescribes medications to deal with the symptoms of stress and depression: some address anxiety, some address the chemical imbalance. If your doctor determines you will benefit from medication based on test results, it’s a good treatment option that can stabilize your system.
If you don’t feel you need or want to start with prescription medications, tune into Part II.
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