How many times have we heard that stress is bad for us? That we need to try this technique or that exercise in order to lower our stress? That there will be detrimental consequences to living with high levels of stress?
For years, the negative side effects of stress have been hammered into our minds, over and over and over again. The general public is well aware of the physical and emotional side effects associated with stress; from cardiovascular disease to tense muscles to debilitating anxiety to irritable bowels, the adversities of stress have been incessantly exposed. Basically, we have been told that stress is a silent killer and that eliminating it is the only cure.
What if what we have come to know is wrong? As it turns out, it is wrong. What makes stress unhealthy isn’t stress itself; it is our beliefs about stress. Recent research from Harvard University has suggested that, if we can change our minds about stress, we can change our bodies’ reaction to it.
Stress often activates the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system), which causes an increase in heart rate, respiration rate, and perspiration. That is, a general feeling of anxiety. Most would categorize anxiety as negative, inadequate coping. But rather than anxious, what the body is doing is becoming energized and prepared to take on a challenge; the pounding heart is preparing for action and the fast breathing is helping to get more oxygen to the brain.
The Harvard research has shown that when we view our stress as a positive thing, our bodies’ physical response to it is also positive. A typical stress response not only increases heart rate, but also causes the blood vessels to become narrow (vasoconstrict). The increased rate forces more blood through constricted vasculature, causing damming and increased intra-vascular pressure. The increased pressure damages the vessels and, over time, causes cardiovascular disease. What researchers found is that, when participants viewed their stress as helpful, their blood vessels stayed relaxed and wide (vasodilation). Even though the heart beats faster, the diameter of the vasculature is able to handle it and handle it well. Therefore, how you think about your stress matters.
Another interesting finding from the research is that stress makes people social and that the socialization enhances revitalization. Oxytocin (sometimes called the “cuddle hormone”) functions to strengthen relationships by making us crave physical contact, have better empathy, and show more support for loved ones. Oxytocin, as it turns out, does more than make us want to hug everyone; it is also released in response to stress because it plays a vital role cardiovascular protection. It is a natural anti-inflammatory agent, vasodialtor, and has receptors on myocardial (or heart) cells that help to reverse any damage from stress. The more we surround ourselves with support (which can reduce stress in and of itself), the more oxytocin is released, the more damage reversal occurs. That is, oxytocin creates a positive feedback loop that helps to boost its own benefits. Thus, our bodies have an innate mechanism to seek human connection as well as reverse the harmful effects of stress.
While meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga are great for helping to lower stress and chiropractic care can relieve the aches and pains from a tense body, changing your view on the effects of stress and seeking social interaction is essential to your health. For more detailed information, check out Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk (one of Dr. Sarah's favourite TED talks!). For more information on how chiropractic care can relieve the physical symptoms of stress and tips on how to cope with stress, contact our North Vancouver chiropractors today!