April is Stress Awareness Month, and in today’s day and age everyone is juggling a myriad of stresses. What if stress is not the problem? To understand WHY stress is such a topic of discussion in healthcare today, we must first understand:
Part 1 of this 2-Part series will address the first two of these three concepts as a foundation for understanding the secret to living a stress-resilient (NOT stress-free) life. In Part 2, I’ll lay out the framework for understanding how to identify your primary stress type and what to do about it.
The Various Types of Stress
The word “stress” has taken on a life of its own in both definition and implication. What used to be understood as “catch-all” word for things that cause anxiety or pressure is now, more appropriately, contextualized based on the type of stress. For the purposes of this article, stress will be approached with a physiological perspective. Very simply, *stressors are classified by the primary means by which they affect the body. *
Physiologically, stress can be categorized into three principal areas:
Mental/emotional (what you think and feel)
Perhaps the most commonly understood form of stress is the mental/emotional variety. Most people understand this kind of stress to be gradually building sense of anxiety that accompanies big changes or decisions, traumatic or alarming situations, or simply mounting demands with a decreased capacity to meet those demands.
The limbic system is the portion of the brain that is most often activated in these scenarios and is responsible for mood and instinct as well as basic emotions such as fear and anger. Chronic mental/emotional stress can lead to feelings of depression, fatigue, and mood swings as this region of the brain is overtaxed. Interestingly, positive emotions and experiences also activate this region of the brain and impose a specific “stress” of their own to the body.
With that in mind, we must ask, “why is it that the same emotional circumstances can lead to a tremendous personal growth for one person and overwhelm another?”
Chemical (what you ingest, inject, or apply topically)
There has been an increased focus on identifying and eliminating chemical stressors from our lifestyle; i.e. organic food, natural body products, “detoxes”, etc. Simply put, chemical stress is the accumulated biochemical demands on the body that is unmet with the appropriate adaptation. This category comprises what we eat, drink, ingest as drugs or supplements, apply on the surface of our skin (makeup, lotions, tattoos, etc) and anything else of a chemical nature. For example, a contaminated water source will very likely introduce a chemical demand on the body that will elicit a very specific response – eliminate at all costs. Drinking tainted water can cause fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and a host of other unpleasant responses that are the body’s way of eliminating a foreign invader. On the opposite end of the spectrum, drinking TOO MUCH pure water can result in electrolyte imbalances that can lead to kidney failure and death. Each of these scenarios disrupts the metabolic processes of the body which ultimately harms us.
As Paracelsus adequately stated, “the dose makes the poison.” When understanding and addressing chemical stresses, we must also ask, “what makes the same chemical a poison to one person and a cure to another?”
Structural (the stability and integrity of the body’s framework)
Perhaps the most overlooked and insidious of all stresses is the on hidden in plain sight – structural stress. Any reasonable person can appreciate the adage, “structure determines function.” When it comes to the human body, the structural framework (the skeleton and its corresponding tissues) has a foundation – the spine. In the same way that a building will deteriorate prematurely if its foundation is not level and solid, the human body requires structural balance to functional optimally. The field of bio-tensegrity has uncovered how structural stress can affect us on a cellular level via microfilaments that hold us together on a microscopic level. The spine is particularly impactful in its effect on the body due to its intimate relationship to the nervous system, commonly understood as the electrical communicating system of the body. You can think of the spine as the infrastructure or conduit through which your body’s fiber optic lines travel. These “fiber optic cables” (nerves) keep your devices (organs and tissues) connected to and communicating with your mainframe (brain). If the conduit becomes eroded or damaged, the communication along those fiber optic lines can become interrupted resulting in decreased performance of the device at the end of that circuit.
This is the reason why many folks with abnormal structural alignment in the spine experience secondary conditions such as back and leg pain, neck pain, headaches of diverse types, chronic fatigue, brain fog, bowel conditions, etc.
Each of these stressors impacts the body differently, any most of us experience a combination of various stresses from each of these categories. These “compounding variables” can work against our chances for long term health without employing the necessary strategies to mitigate their negative effects.
However, a new understanding of stress is shedding light on the common thread between these different types of stress and holds the secret to dealing with them PROACTIVELY. In Part 2, this common thread will be revealed as well as the real-world strategies for thriving IN SPITE of stress.
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