Stress, Health, and the Power of Perspective
As you might imagine, clients come to me with all sorts of different health maladies, some very serious, others just ongoing annoyances, but all life-disruptive. So far, the one thing that every one of these folks share in common is stress. Although some of this stress stems from the health issue they are experiencing at the moment, most of it began years in advance of their current situation and is now chronic (ongoing). Am I implying that stress is to blame for their health concerns? Yes I am. Stress can be physical or emotional, but regardless of its root cause, it becomes a vicious cycle. Emotional stresses leading to physical symptoms and physical causes resulting in emotional symptoms. Biochemistry and emotions intertwine, so to address the physical aspects of stress and disease without addressing the emotions will short-change the healing process.
Stress Causes Disease
Let’s face it, all of the research points to stress ultimately being the cause of disease. Stress, after all, leads to an inflammatory reaction similar to what happens when we suffer a cut or burn. As a protective mechanism employed by the body, energy is mobilized to the area of the injury to remove what is painful or threatening, like bacteria, viruses or even damaged cells. This takes energy, and lots of it. The bummer is that the inflammation caused by stress can be systemic, meaning it affects the whole body and is rarely once and done. Ongoing (chronic) stress causes ongoing (chronic) inflammation. Basically, from the time we wake in the morning until we retire for the night, things happen that create fear, guilt, frustration, anger; these “things” can be termed “stressors”. As a result of this chronic stress, the hormone cortisol that is secreted by our adrenal glands to help us handle stress in a healthy manner and quell inflammation, begins to lose its effect on the immune cells. In other words, the immune cells become sort of numb to the effect of this powerful hormone, allowing stress, and consequently inflammation, to run rampant.
Stress isn’t going to magically disappear.
True. I’m not naive to think that modern-day sources of stress are going away anytime soon, although there’s no doubt that would be ideal. So minimizing the negative effects of stress on our health becomes the key, and we can start by taking care of ourselves physically; eating natural, whole, anti-inflammatory foods along with supplemental nutrients known for strengthening our stress-handling adrenal glands and other systems of the body.
Unfortunately, I’m hear to tell you that addressing only nutrition is not likely to completely protect us from stress-related health issues down the road. We must also change how we think. Why? Because every time we view something as stressful, the body burns through nutrients like a car burning through gasoline when we rev the engine. And, as I’ve seen time and again, when we don’t have enough of the critical nutrient “spark plugs” (think vitamins and minerals) needed by our cells for energy production, metabolic processes become sluggish and a downward spiral begins: Stress depletes nutrients which depletes energy which leads to more stress on the body which depletes nutrients which depletes energy … and so on. (Read more about the stress response of the body here)
We can’t eliminate stress, but we can “re-frame” it.
So are we destined to be victims of the negative vicious cycle caused by stress? No. We just have to approach our sources of stress from all angles. First we eat a healthy diet and treat our physical bodies well, and then we work on “re-framing” our thoughts. I’m talking about perspective. What is keeping us from looking at our sources of stress differently? The powerful truth is, we can choose whether or not a situation triggers a stress response in our body. Is it easy? No. Is it possible? Yes. Will it affect health and healing in a positive manner? Absolutely.
I noted earlier that every one of my clients has stress. Many have even experienced trauma of some kind along the way. So I take whatever time is necessary to address this important part of their health equation through ongoing support and brainstorming to explore different ways of looking at things. What is amazing is that no matter what the seriousness or devastating nature of their stressful experience is, as we brainstorm we are always able to come up with other, more positive perspectives from which to view the event or situation.
The seriousness of the stress doesn’t matter. What matters is taking time to explore it from different angles.
Here’s more about what this means: When one event in our lives or even a whole era of our existence (childhood, for instance) brings with it bad feelings like fear or guilt or anger, it’s important to broaden our view of that specific event or era. Conscious observation of the way you think, the way your beliefs may have been changed or passions ignited as a result of the negative situation. For instance, it’s not uncommon for those who have experienced trauma to end up helping others heal from similar situations, in time turning a bad experience into something positive while for others while simultaneously healing themselves. Suffering on the part of one person can lead to a strength and wisdom that trickles down to positively affect the masses if we carefully explore that suffering when appropriate.
Being hurt by another person is another experience that can potentially be re-framed. Of course when we are hurt we instinctively take that personally. That’s normal, right? But in time we become able to step back a bit and look more carefully at what the life experiences of the person who hurt us were that may have influenced their actions. We may find that our perspective shifts just by acknowledging the whole picture, making it easier to steer clear of long-term destructive feelings like self-doubt, anger or shame.
Even relatively insignificant things like traffic on the way to work can cause the body to initiate the stress response. You may have heard of accounts of people whose lives were saved by being stuck in traffic or being delayed in some way. We just never know when something that appears to be negative will, in the long run, prove to be positive. Why not think that way?
Like I said before, a change in perspective – changing our judgment of what we consider good and what we consider bad – isn’t easy. And it certainly won’t happen if we brush our emotions under the table. We all know those people, or maybe we are those people, who wear a constant smile but struggle internally with as much stress as the next person. The bottom line: burying negative emotions deep inside wreaks havoc on health. “Better out than in” is my favorite motto with regard to negative emotions. Stress is a toxin.
It’s the talking through process that often provides us with hints of differing perspectives. Without examination of our feelings, we are unlikely to find alternative ways of looking at things.
If we shift to a positive perspective of a stressful experience, it no longer triggers a stress response within our body.
Stressful experiences are a part of life. Always have been, always will be. That’s why the importance lies in how we view these experiences rather than the experiences themselves. A positive perspective can provide a huge benefit to our immediate as well as long-term health. If we make it a point to start to practice viewing things differently, eventually this will turn into a habit, lessening not only the outward signs of stress but also the internal inflammation that occurs as a result. And with less stress comes better health!
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