Approximately 70-90% of all visits to the doctor are stress-related ailments or complaints. To go further more, this implies that 70-90% of all illnesses and health complaints are psychosomatic or related to the mind, being an internal conflict or stress. Those are some pretty incredible statistics, taken from WebMD, and should serve as a wake-up call of sorts for us as humans existing in a body given to us for and with a purpose. Spend a little time on social media, jumping from one ‘medical’ oriented group to the next, and you will just get a glimpse of not just what ailments are impacting people, but to what degree. Then, instead of remedying or improving the cause, being stress in our lives, we rally for sympathy or raise funds to rid that disease from the face of the earth. The reality is that your body, my body, is a living device, and what goes into it and what it is faced with, impacts it’s function. This in turn can either create wellness or disease. Choice is yours and it is mine, but there are things you can do to mitigate the damage if lifestyle and stress cannot be completely eradicated.
Stress. It’s a killer and we all know it. In fact, we often like to joke about it, which may help us to reduce the impact on our health as we laugh, but it may also be a way of avoiding a serious topic. We all know someone that has passed away from a various illness, linking their death precisely with that disease, but is there more to the story? Was it truly that disease that caused their death or something else that created that scenario and set the stage? I see the ramifications in my own body, sometimes on a daily basis, and I see it others that are close to me. I can see the effects, but if I mention it to the other person, they often just say, ‘yeah, it’s stress‘, but they don’t understand the true ramifications or the need to make changes.
In reality, we are hitting our thumbs with hammers every day and complaining our thumb hurts, but fail to realize the cause, and that if done for a long enough period, our thumb may be permanently damaged.
What are we all stressed about?
- Family Situation
- Lifestyle Change
- Health (stress induced??)
- Death of a Loved One
Stress and Chinese Medicine
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is much emphasis placed upon emotions and disease. Any one emotion, even a positive one such as ‘joy’, in excess can create disease based on their philosophies. The reason for this is that emotions, especially excess states, is linked with energy or Qi stagnation in the body, which can be transient and short-lived, or chronic in nature.
I’ve looked at stress and the impact in our veterinary patients for quite some time, and in becoming more knowledgeable and aware, it is not hard to recognize the impact in my own body. In simplest terms, and something we can all relate to, when we’ve had a stressful day at work or home, we often rub our necks. A neck rub or even shoulder rub can help tremendously. This neck pain is not only due to increased stress upon the neck due to looking at a computer screen and tilting your head, but is due to energy stagnating in that region, termed Qi Stagnation, in terms of Chinese Medicine. Stress and tension cause energy in our body to stop circulating properly on a basic level, and one area that is susceptible to stagnant or blocked energy is in our neck.
This energy stagnation can also show up in other areas of our body.
In reality, the energy should be free flowing at all times, which relates to circulation, and if circulation is compromised then the organ in question freezes up, stops working properly.
Thus, tension in the neck or shoulder muscles. It can and does also show up as digestive issues such as bloating, cramping, diarrhea, constipation. In addition, in women, it can worsen menstrual issues, leading to increased cramping, tender breasts, abdominal pain, and even bleeding. The key here, with Qi stagnation, is that often that pain is blunt and dull, fleeting in times, being there one minute, but then gone the next kind of thing. That’s just energy stagnating, then resuming normal flow when tension is relieved.
However, the bad news here, from a Chinese Medicine perspective, is that Qi stagnation can result in impaired circulation of blood, which results in blood stagnation. This is a more serious situation and creates more stabbing and acute pain, which tends to linger rather than subside. Now, due to stress and tension, you have not just altered energy flow, but directly impacted circulation. Starve those organs of blood flow long enough and serious ailments will follow. This may be ongoing back pain, joint pain, neck pain, abdominal pain or menstrual issues in a woman. It may also lead to blood clots, either in veins in the legs, heart, lungs, abdomen, or in menstrual flow with women. It is also associated with many cancerous tumors, being the result of long-term energy and blood stagnation.
Now, you’ve just taken illness to a more serious level…from a Chinese perspective, but in reality, the cause is the same. Stress and tension.
Stress and Physiological Effects
Likely, we’ve all known a co-worker or family member that is sick all the time, or at least more frequently than we consider ‘normal’. Many times, we just look at that person and wonder ‘what is wrong with you?“, or better yet, we just stay clear of them so we don’t catch what they have. This is neither helping us or them, nor is it truly addressing the problem of why they are sick.
The reality is, proven by research, that when we are under chronic stress, which is different from acute stress, our body responds or reacts in a negative fashion. When your body is under chronic stress and tension, hormones change, there is an increased or sometimes decreased cortisol release, and an altered immune function, often with increased suppressor T-cells which reduce efficiency. This altered immune status, due to chronic stress, is what then makes a person more susceptible to the common cold, for instance. Compute that over time, and taking into consideration the importance of the immune response in conditions such as cancer, and it opens the possibility that the common cold could be the least of that person’s worries. Take that individual ten years down the road, with an unchanged lifestyle, and things could be much worse.
Let’s go to the more obvious in regards to our health and stress. If you were to ask anyone to name a disease associated with stress, likely they would say a heart attack. This is very true and cardiovascular disease and stress are heavily linked in research. In fact, cardiovascular disease is rated number one for psychosomatic related illnesses and takes many lives per year. As with cancer, the precise mechanism as to how chronic stress causes this condition is still vague, as likely it is not just by one method or route. More than likely, it is linked back to the impact of chronic stress upon the inflammatory cascade of events in the body, coupled with an oxidative imbalance, which then leads to endothelial cell changes or vascular changes and blood flow. (Golbidi, 2015) (Kershaw, 2017)
Truthfully, any health ailment can be attributed to stress, either in it’s creation or further progression. If you have any health condition which seems to be worse clinically during a stressful period of time, then likely it is impacted by stress, either in creation or progression.
Anxiety, depression and other cognitive issues are related and linked to chronic stress. They are conditions related to the mind, with anxiety being related to future events, and often depression linked to the past. Many digestive health ailments, from irritable bowel syndrome to irritable bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, gastric ulcers, and even Crohn’s disease are linked with stress, either as a possible creator or cause, but definitely an instigator or aggravating factor. The connection there is with chronic stress, the digestive microbiome, and the ‘gut-brain‘ axis. (Moloney, 2016)
The term ‘disease’ is really ‘dis-ease’ meaning a lack of ease or relaxation in the body. Any time there is a disease in the body, a health ailment, it means a lack of ease and in truth, patients that are sick or complaining of illness are not at ease. So, just by having the disease or illness, they are creating more stress upon the body, through a negative mindset and complaining. This then usually worsens the problem, no different than knowing your thumb hurts and placing all focus upon that thumb. The problem gets worse, not better.
Stress and Adaptation
Stress comes in two forms; acute and chronic.
Acute stress, which may be associated with giving a speech in front of a large crowd, lifting a heavy object, or getting through the jitters of a marriage ceremony are all good for the body. The reason being is that this type of short-acting stress helps our body to become stronger, as the body adapts to it. This can also be said of a person that moves to a cold climate, experiences environmental stress, and adapts over time.
Chronic stress is that mental or physical stress that happens over and over again, day after day, month after month. We’ve talked about chronic inflammation, acting like a glowing pile of embers in the background of your health. This chronic stress is the same and actually is a strong contributor to that chronic inflammation. Your body is not meant to take such mental and physical abuse on a constant basis. When it does, your body changes, and tries to adapt over and over, but usually fails due to exhaustion. Your blood pressure goes up, heart rate increases, circulation patterns are altered in your body, starving some areas of blood and nutrients, while others get excessive amounts, and hormone patterns are likewise altered.
Your body is in a state of alarm, ready to retreat from a predator at any time….yet, there is no predator other than yourself.
Hans Selye, one of the forefathers of stress research, had a general theory he called “General Adaptation Syndrome“. This consists of 3-stages in which the body responds to stress.
- Alarm Stage: This refers to the generally short-lived physiological changes in our body as a result of exposure to stress, which include a heart rate elevation, changes to blood pressure, altered circulation, and sweating. All a result of the ‘fight or flight’ response.
- Resistance Stage: In this phase one of two things happen. First, you resolve the primary stressor and your body relaxes and goes into ‘repair’ mode, or second, you do not resolve the primary stressor, your body continues to respond on a low level with hormonal changes, and your body attempts to adapt and overcome the new challenges. I emphasize ‘attempts’ here because your body can cover up many things for a long period of time, and even look clinically normal because of compensation, but underneath, the fire is still brewing.
- Exhaustion Stage: This is the stage in which your body can no longer put up a fight and cover up problems. Your body begins to fail inside and out, with the creation of illness, injury, and overall a weakened structure of existence. Over time, if not corrected, the body will fail and death will ensue.
The fact is that stress is a good thing for the body, in increments and for short periods of time. In excess, anything is bad, but when a health ailment is created out of stress, it usually compounds the problem by creating more stress upon the body. Your body is not immortal, at least in our hands, and over time can only take so much, like bending a piece of metal back and forth. Eventually it will snap.
Hans Selye pointed out what he viewed as the “battery of life“, which was like an internal energy source present in our body which allowed it to continue on and on, despite of any negative influences. Eventually that ‘battery’ wears down and life will discontinue.
Stress. It’s a fact of life for all of us, myself included. I am not ‘for’ the discussion of disease, but ‘for’ the discussion of cause and resolution. The problems or causes of our illness creations are in our hands, as they are in the lifestyle we choose. Thus, it is in your hands, my hands to make changes. A person under stress is often viewed as living ‘unconsciously’ as they are not aware of their decisions and the true ramifications. Given this, a person under stress often has erratic eating habits, more likely to indulge in excess alcohol, smoking, or even recreational drugs. These are attempts, albeit unconscious, to relieve the stress that is present within their body. In truth, these attempts just make matters worse, adding more insult to the already injured body.
In our second article, I will discuss options that are present at your finger tips which can help offset the negative impact of stress, and even promote healing within your body. Even if you can’t reduce all stressors in your life, which is next to impossible for all of us, you can make some changes and implement some options that can reduce the impact. They might just save your life!
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN