"Stress is caused by being 'here' but wanting to be 'there.'" - Eckhart Tolle
“People are disturbed not by a thing, but by their perception of a thing.” - Epictetus
Guys, Stress can literally make you fat and sick.
*Record skips.* Wait, what?
Real life: like most of you, I feel like I run around putting out fires non stop. Whether it’s at work or my kids- it just seems like there is always someone coming to me with meltdowns or major problem👆🏻🤣 AKA this is stressful. Acute stress is one thing- and actually can be a good thing, but CHRONIC stress is a killer and more research is coming out all the time supporting this. Here's where we start:
If We Want to Defeat it, We Have to Define It: What Counts as Chronic Stress?
Yes, it's true: chronic stress can negatively impact virtually every system within your body and over time can cause or exacerbate chronic illness.
Note that I'm talking about chronic stress, here. This is vastly different from acute stress, which is the short-term "fight, flight, or freeze" response our body launches to protect against an imminent threat, like police lights in the rearview mirror or, ancestrally speaking, tigers and stuff. It's also different than eustress, a moderate and generally "good" form of stress that can actually help you become stronger and more resilient, whether physically (such as a challenging workout) or mentally (such as a challenging work assignment or presentation).
Conversely, we can think of chronic stress as the accruing interest of day-to-day worries and anxieties: raising a family, paying bills, launching a career or business, caring for ill parents, etc. This is the stress we tend to repress or "push through" in the hopes that by ignoring it (and instead just chopping away at our to-do list) it'll go away.
News flash: it doesn't work like that. If anything, the more we try to push down or ignore our stress, the WORSE it becomes. And I'm not just talking about on an emotional, mental, or psychological level:
Undeterred, chronic stress will LITERALLY hurt you on a cellular level. This is the brain-body connection at its CORE.
Here's How Chronic Stress Impacts Your Health
Chronic levels of stress influences your health in all the wrong ways. Here are just a few examples of the negative consequences it causes:
- Hormone dysfunction: the normal "fight, flight, or freeze" response mediated by your sympathetic nervous system during acute stress is normal and healthy. It triggers your adrenal glands to release epinephrine and cortisol, the main so-called "stress hormones." When things are working appropriately, these hormones will return to their normal levels once the acutely stressful situation is over. But in a chronically stressed state, your adrenal glands will continue pumping them out. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol, in particular, triggers uncontrolled inflammation in the body and disrupts the many, many other physiological processes mediated by hormones (including sleep, hunger, menstruation, and fertility).
- Immune dysfunction: when you're chronically stressed, your immune system doesn't function properly—period. This is largely due to the way elevated stress hormones suppress or interfere with immune cell proliferation and expression (a negative effect supported clinically in a 2004 meta-analysis involving over 300 studies). In the extreme, this turns you into the proverbial sitting duck in the face of viruses and bacteria, and even contributes to the development of autoimmune disorders. Stress also inhibits digestion, blocks important nutrient absorption, and throws off the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut—which goes hand in hand with your immune health.
- High blood sugar: cortisol triggers your liver to release glucose into the blood. From an evolutionary standpoint makes sense—we want sugar, aka fuel, in the blood so our cells will have energy to run our butts off or fight like hell in the face of immediate danger. But since chronic stress = chronic cortisol, we continue to have high levels of blood sugar, which stokes the inflammatory fire and increases our risk for type 2 diabetes. NOT cool. Oh, and don't forget: we tend to crave carbs and sugary foods when we're stressed, which further exacerbates high blood sugar levels and cause us to pack on the pounds.
I mean, wow. Quite the dubious list of accolades if you ask me. When you put it all together, chronic stress has been scientifically associated with a damn cornucopia of health problems, including (but not limited to) depression, stroke, heart attacks, memory problems, obesity, hypertension, tension headaches, insomnia, Parkinson's disease, atopic dermatitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancer. To take it a step further (not that we want to), chronic stress not only makes you more likely to get sick, but it makes it more difficult to get healthy again after the fact.
And while the literature may be short of saying that stress literally causes disease, you can be darn sure that, at best, it's making some serious problems a whole lot worse. I really can't stress this enough.
If this thought hasn't crossed your mind yet, then I want you to consider it now:
Not everybody has chronic stress, even though almost all of us are dealing with similar life challenges. So how is it that some people seem to do a much better job at coping with their stress compared to others?
Of course, the true answer to this is extremely multifaceted—though suffice to say that genetics, past experiences, personality, individual lifestyle choices, and even the environment are all at play.
But if I could leave you with one main takeaway—other than the frank realization that chronic unmitigated stress is just as bad for your health as smoking cigarettes and chugging soda all day long—it would be this:
It's not so much what's going on in your life that will impact your health, but how you handle it. I find this inspiring, because it hits on an important truth...the truth that we can't always control what happens, but we can learn how to control our response to it.
So this week, take a time out. Get those workouts in. Take a walk. Do some breathing exercises. Meditate. Talk to a trusted friend. Laugh. Write in a journal. Find a therapist. Hold your crystals. Say your mantras. Take a nap. Put your feet in the sand and just BE. Lock your phone away for the weekend. Whatever is going to help your ZERO out. Because that's what it's all about. It's ok to run at a 10 but you have to spend time at 0 too. There are so many tools at your disposal which can help you become more in control of your stress response. For the benefit of yourself and the loved ones depending on you, seek these tools out and use them.