A day does not pass in my office that I don’t talk to someone who is maxed out, burned out, or stressed out. It’s the new normal in our culture. Gone are the days of Ward and June Cleaver and Richie Cunningham. People are overwhelmed by life.
When I first started my practice, back in the 1990s (remember them?), I had a few patients were high-strung, and others who went through difficult times in their lives, but it was nothing like what I see today. People are afraid of the government, worried about their kids, anxious about their finances, pressured at work, uncertain about their future, and the list goes on and on. Some are more prone to stress than others, but everyone deals with it.
Stress Is Serious Business
I take stress very seriously, so early on I made it part of my treatment to talk to my patients about their emotional lives as well as their physical health. One of the guiding principles of my practice is that we take a holistic, multi-faceted approach to wellness. Your spine does not exist in isolation from the rest of your life. Diet, movement, emotions, beliefs and environmental factors all interact in your body. And stress touches them all.
I want to say from the outset that a certain amount of stress is healthy – even necessary – for the daily operation of life. There isn’t a hard-and-fast rule for how much stress is appropriate for every individual, but there is a place in life for it. From the perspective of body chemistry, stress is an operation of the neurotransmitters circulating through your body. Neurotransmitters are biochemicals that are generated in your brain, thyroid, and other glands around your body, and communicate information through your blood stream.
The Chemistry of Stress
In small doses, adrenaline and cortisol work to help you get out of bed in the morning, move quicker when you’re running late, and stay motivated at work. They are also helpful when you encounter an alligator on the golf course (or so I’ve been told). The question is how much of these neurotransmitters each person can handle. Most neurotransmitters are meant to be used in small doses.
As I’ve said here many times, adrenaline is highly corrosive, and if you leave the adrenaline faucet on all the time, it will damage your other organs.
Dopamine is addictive. That’s the neurotransmitter that gives you the feeling of reward when something positive happens. It’s the reason you check your Facebook page every few minutes to see if you have a little red number at the top – your body is looking for a quick fix of feel-good dopamine.
So, from a strictly biochemical perspective, stress is a function of your organs communicating with each other. But we all know that stress is not simply physical. In fact, the physical manifestation of stress, as destructive as it can be, is actually the result, not the cause. Stress begins in the mind.
Why Do You Have Stress?
Why do you feel anxious when your boss walks into the room? Do you remember a harsh conversation you had with her? Do you feel intimidated? Have you heard disturbing stories from other employees about her? In that moment, the tension you feel in your throat, the burning in your stomach, and the shortness of breath are the result of your beliefs about your relationship with your boss. Your beliefs may or may not have anything to do with reality, but your body is responding to your beliefs in that moment, not the truth.
If your stress were just in your mind, I would encourage you to seek counseling to identify the beliefs behind your anxious feelings, so you could deal with them directly. Unfortunately, the stress doesn’t stop at your cerebral cortex. It filters down into your organs. It is the “fight-or-flight” mechanism that was coded directly into our DNA as a protective measure to save us from predators. But most of us live in relative safety most of the time. Instead of short-term danger from predators, we live in a sort of emotional stew of the “fight -or-flight” chemicals that we don’t otherwise need. Now, our “predators” are the TV news, unkind co-workers, and those financial services sales letters that tell us that the government is secretly planning to shut down your bank and steal your money.
(Incidentally, I recently saw a copy of one of those letters from 1995, and it was almost word-for-word the same as the one I received in the mail in 2016. It’s all marketing.)
Take Action Against Stress
So, what can we do to stop stewing in our own stress chemicals?
Some careers are legitimately stressful just because of the nature of the work. Emergency room staff, police, pastors, and other executives often have very stressful careers. Some feel the pressure of millions of dollars’ worth of transactions, some work around violence and danger, while others deal with the worst sides of people. The stress and pressure are real, and they need practical ways to manage that stress.
One of the first things I recommend to patients in stressful careers is to exercise aggressively. Take out their frustration and release their tension on a punching bag (so they don’t release on their kids or employees), on the bench press, or on the running trail. I especially like the effects of High-Intensity Interval Training, because it includes 90-second cycles of maximum output, followed by short periods of rest. It gives the heart muscles a great workout, flushes toxins out of the lymphatic system, and forces lactic acid through the muscle tissue. This focused type of cardio training is excellent for releasing stress. So much better for you than jogging or running the treadmill.
I can’t think of a single patient I’ve had over the years who had stress issues and didn’t have a caffeine or sugar habit along with it. If you eat donuts and drink carbonated, caffeinated soft drinks at work, your day probably looks like this: your energy rises during the hour after your first donut, but then it starts to fade as your blood sugar drops. You feel sluggish and have trouble focusing or making decisions, so you perk yourself up with a second soft drink or another donut. Now, you’re irritable because you feel like your body can’t keep up with your mind. People get on your nerves. Now it’s lunch time. After a carb-rich lunch with plenty of grain products, you enter the afternoon nap time where it feels like nothing you do makes sense. Everything people say to you feels like an insult. You just watch the clock until the day is out.
The sugar is working against you, but as it triggers the pleasure centers of the brain, you feel like you need it to function. It’s a never-ending, vicious cycle of destruction. Get it out of your life. In fact, limit your fruit intake for a few weeks, because that sugar (fructose) also stimulates your pancreas to flood your body with insulin. I would recommend you get all the bread, soft drinks, pasta, and sweets of your diet for a while.
Drink water, eat fish and lean chicken, along with fresh vegetables. You will find you have much more energy, and it will be much more stable. No more peaks and crashes. Yes, you will have withdrawal and cravings, at least for a few days. Drink water, do some of the “Move Right Monday” exercises and give your body some meat. Meat is the only natural source of Vitamin B12, which is a natural stimulant, and very stable.
I’ve talked about this before, but in a nutshell, you need to identify your sources of stress and determine why they stress you out. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you will find that people or situations that stress you out can be linked directly to something that frightened you as a child. Problems with authority, insecurities, self-hate, feelings of shame, and other such emotional issues are usually rooted in your first six years of life.
It might be time to sort back through your memory and identify the first time you can remember feeling that shame, anger, hatred, or insecurity, and remember what caused it. At this point, you have a choice to make: you can either forgive the person who hurt you (it might be a parent, a teacher, a kid on the playground, God. or even yourself) or continue suffering until you are ready to forgive and release that person. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. It might be the thing that is holding back your career, your marriage, your finances, or your other relationships.
Stress starts in the mind. It starts with things you believe – whether your beliefs are true or not. Your beliefs shape your emotional responses; your emotions drive your decisions; your decisions form your habits; your habits shape your character, and your character sets the limits on your life.
If you have trouble forgiving others on your own, you can visit with a counselor or Pastor to work through it. Realize that you might have to go through the process of forgiving someone many times before you are entirely free from the bondage of unforgiveness, especially if they abused you repeatedly when you were young. It’s worth the time and effort to get free. Remember, refusing to forgive someone doesn’t affect them at all, but it creates stress in you that ruins your organs.
Emotionally healthy people can handle stressful situations with grace and peace, especially if they know they can trust others. People who can trust their coworkers or team members work with greater peace and freedom than those who don’t. Bosses who trust their employees experience more peace than bosses who are suspicious or condescending to their employees. Parents who trust their children experience more peace. People who trust God on the basis of His Word experience more peace than those who don’t. There is extensive published secular research that validates the fact that people of faith live longer than people without faith.
Trust is an important part of the stress-free life.
I can also talk about removing harsh cleaning products, aerosols, vehicle exhaust, and other toxins from their environment. Some people have found that keeping plants or pets in their life spaces reduces stress. Some move to the country to reduce their stress. Others take vacations where they force themselves to relax for more than a couple of days in a row (taking a trip to Disney World does not count – it is not relaxing). I don’t necessarily mean sleeping – good sleep is actually a by-product of a stress-free life – but resting. Shutting off the access to communications and disengaging from work entirely for anything from one day to a couple of weeks. You need to step away from the fire at times. Even I have to get away a few times a year, and I work hard to keep my stress low at work and at home.
I also highly recommend sex, if you are married. It’s a great stress reliever. If you are not married, it will actually create a level of stress you don’t need or want. So not worth it.
In short, there are simple things you can do to minimize your stress and experience your best life now. Try a couple of these ideas this week and tell me about the difference you feel in your health. I’ve seen joint pain, indigestion, headaches, blurry vision, and a dozen other health issues correct themselves when people made a conscious effort to remove stress from their lives. It works.
If you live in the Naples area, I’d like to invite you to our next Fundamental Foods Night, where we will be digging more deeply into the topic of managing stress. I’m working up an outline for that night that will really encourage you. Plus, the dinner and conversation are always worth the trip. Thursday, May 4th, join us at 6:15 p.m. at our office behind the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road. Click here to RSVP now, so you can be sure to get a seat. These events fill up fast!
Do you know someone who has some unhealthy stress in their life? Take a few seconds to share this article with them, and help us get this message out to a sick and stressed-out world. Together, we can really impact people’s lives.
“At the end of your feelings is NOTHING. At the end of your principles is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas