How Do You Know if You are Stressed?

I saw a middle-aged women in the office this week who works at a local tech firm. She came in for her annual free preventative wellness check-up that is a part of Obamacare. Since stress either causes or exacerbates nearly every major disease in our society, and since stressors are a universal human experience, good preventative health requires an effective way to protect yourself from the adverse effects of stress. I think these preventative visits are a good time to talk about how to do that.

But she had an interesting question: how do you know if you’re stressed? She was serious. For her, personality issues with her team-mates, other teams not getting their stuff to her team on time, long work days, high-pressure deadlines, and intense learning curves were the norm. And for everyone she knows. “Isn’t that just normal?” she asked.

If by “normal”, you mean the majority of people experience it, then, yes, being chronically stressed is now normal, but it is not good. Every ten years, the American Institute of Stress conducts a major survey of Americans. Each survey for the last 30 years has shown an increasing number of Americans self-identifying as being highly stressed until the last survey, over fifty percent of Americans so identified.

Interestingly, over the same time period, surveys by the National Institute of Health have shown that the number of Americans living with chronic disease has also been increasing, until the last survey revealed that over fifty percent of Americans are now living with (and dying from) one or more chronic diseases. We don’t know if they are the same fifty percent, put there are plenty of studies linking chronic stress to chronic disease so it is really no surprise that the two have gone up hand-in-hand.

I would like to point out that this has been happening on Conventional medicine’s watch. Conventional medicine has ways to treat most of the symptoms of most chronic diseases but they are not very good at preventing or curing them. Similarly, what most of us are doing to cope with the stressors in our lives is not saving us. We need better ways to deal with the problems of chronic stress and chronic disease…and I’m here to say that we now have them.  

But I digress, back to my patient’s question. Once people develop a disease that is related to chronic stress, they often look back and say, “Yup, I guess I’ve been stressed for years.” But that is too late, it’s a lot more work to cure a chronic disease than to prevent it. A better approach would be to first notice when you are experiencing some of the early warning signs that stress is affecting you enough that it will eventually make you sick and then to act immediately and preemptively to make yourself impervious to stressors. You have to listen to your body and look at your life enough to see the early warning signs. Here are some of them:

·         Non-restorative sleep—you wake up in the morning as tired as you were when you went to bed. Also, waking up frequently and/or having trouble going back to sleep because your mind gets thinking of things.

·         Irritability—if you have a short fuse, if you fly off the handle, if you explode like a volcano, or any of those other great metaphors for losing your cool.

·         Decreased libido—too tired to make it and too tired to fight about it.

·         Tight neck, back, or shoulders—chronic tension held in your body anywhere, for that matter.

·         Bruxism—clenching your teeth in your sleep, if your dentist has recommended or given you a bite plate.

·         Headaches—most stress headaches are due to the tight muscles in your neck, but stress can cause other kinds of headaches, too.

·         Fatigue—exhausted, pooped, you only have enough energy for work with none left over for the rest of your life.

·         Digestive problems—heartburn, stomach pain, bloating, cramping, alternating diarrhea and constipation, loss of appetite.

·         Anxiety—feeling trapped in your life, or feeling like something dreadful is going to happen at any minute, or wanting to crawl out of your skin and go hide somewhere else.

·         Resignation—feeling like you just want to give up, like you’re too tired to keep going, overwhelmed.

If you have any of these signs, take the time now to learn how to make yourself impervious to stress. By the time you develop high blood pressure, obesity, arthritis, food and environmental sensitivities, leaky gut, autoimmune diseases, headaches, diabetes, cancer, ulcers, chronic back pain, depression and such, you’ve crossed the line and joined the fifty-plus percent of us living with a chronic disease.

You do not need to get sick from life situations over which you have no control. There are good answers to most of your stressors. I can help you with this in the office or check out all the resources available to you at my other website:  

Be Impervious to Stress, Part II

Conscious and Unconscious Beliefs

To summarize what we’ve covered so far, a stressor can be defined as any experience that results in the triggering of the fight or flight reflex in your body. This is a very ancient reflex because it has been so successful evolutionarily, and it is deeply engrained. When triggered, it effects nearly every process in your body. You cannot stay stressed and stay healthy at the same time, that’s just how you’re designed.

You have essentially three different nervous systems in your body. The one you probably know the best is the central nervous system, comprised of your brain and spinal cord. Your intestines also have their own nervous system and some estimate that it actually has more neurons than your brain. (Therefore, don’t underestimate your “gut feelings”.) Then there is your autonomic nervous system. It is made up of two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic runs your fight or flight (or stress) response and the parasympathetic runs your snooze under a tree (or relaxation) response. All three nervous systems are working all the time and communicate with each other.

When you are in a healthy state, the sympathetic and parasympathetic balance each other. When you are stressed, the sympathetic system dominates and you are in what we call “sympathetic overload”. I bet you’ve heard that term.

Sympathetic overload makes you feel like you are being threatened, even when you’re not, leading to anxiety; it raises your heart rate; induces rapid, shallow breathing; increases your blood pressure, blood sugar and muscle tension. It also dampens down your immune system and shunts blood flow away from your intestines. Your body is designed to tolerate stress for about three weeks. After that, the stress can cause some self-perpetuating physiological loops to get started in your body. Once that happens, even if you get out of stress, the effects keep going in your body. The gift that keeps on giving.

If this sounds like you, come on in for an evaluation or see another good integrative physician, get the loops diagnosed and snipped, and you can get your vitality back.

But, before any kind of medical treatments can help you, you need to get out of the stress. Otherwise, all any practitioner can do for you is give you a set of crutches: you can hobble around a bit better, but your leg is still broken. A good integrative practitioner can help you with any physiological stressors and self-perpetuating physiological loops you may be dealing with, but how do you keep all the potential stressors that are occurring outside your skin from getting under your skin?

As we discussed earlier, that depends upon how you look at your life…and that depends upon what you believe. All the beliefs you’ve formed and all the conclusions you’ve drawn determine how you look at your life. Now, here’s the tricky part: you might think you know what you believe, but that’s not true. You only know about the beliefs that you hold in your conscious mind. As it turns out, you also have a whole set of beliefs in your unconscious mind. To restructure your relationship with stress, you need to be able to change any belief that is making your daily experiences feel like stress, whether that belief is known to you or working in the background. Just because something’s in your unconscious mind doesn’t mean it’s unreachable. There is hope. There are ways to work effectively with the unconscious mind.

Once you identify the belief, the same process can be used to change it, no matter where it came from. So, first, let’s talk about how to find beliefs that are operating in the unconscious and bring them into the conscious. Then we’ll talk about how to change them in a way that avoids getting into an arms race with them. 

Six Lifestyle Changes I Wish All My Patients Would Make

No question, lifestyle choices have a huge impact upon your health. Studies show that healthy lifestyle can prevent or reverse most of the chronic illnesses in our culture such as obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, strokes and cancer. Most of these same advantages cannot be achieved by taking pills.

That’s too bad, of course, because taking pills is quick and easy (and believe me, drug companies continue to look long and hard for pills that could offer these same advantages but none have been found…yet. But they will keep looking) and changing lifestyle is something only you can do. But it doesn’t have to be hard; it doesn’t have to be a drag.

Conventional medicine talks about lifestyle changes to quit smoking, not over-drink and to exercise regularly. These are all good ideas and I’m going to assume you already know the evils of tobacco, alcohol and modeling your daily activity after a sloth. So I want to talk to you about my wish-list for your lifestyle in addition to the conventional ones.

1.       No GMOs. The biotech industry has done a stellar job blocking, censoring and otherwise obfuscating the information about the health effects of GMOs. How much time, energy and money they put into this massive cover-up should give you some indication about how bad GMOs are for you, even without any data. What do they know that is so bad that they have to work so hard to keep us from knowing it? What little data that does get through the cracks (and is credible) is very sobering. A recent study comparing pigs fed GMO soy and corn to pigs fed the same diet but with non-GMO soy and corn found that the GMO male pigs had a four-times increase in severe stomach inflammation while female pigs had 2.2 times higher rate of severe stomach inflammation. The female GMO-fed pigs also had uteri that weighed on average 25% more than the non-GMO pigs. I believe that someday the truth will out, as it generally does, but in the meantime, you don’t need to be part of the giant genetic experiment these giant corporations are conducting on us without our permission. Until we can organize a meaningful revolution, the best each individual can do to stand up to these giant corporations is non-violent non-participation. Just don’t buy their goods. I will go into more detail on the health effects of GMOs in later blogs.

2.       Eat as organically as possible. You can’t completely avoid herbicides and pesticides any more but a study done by the CDC demonstrated that eating organically lowers the levels of these chemicals in your body to as low as one-eighth the level of the general population. Since these things have hormonal activity, eating organically is especially important if you ever want to have children. Feed you children organically because they may want to have children someday. Not only do high levels of pesticides and herbicides affect fertility, they can increase problems with periods in girls and lead to cancers later in life.

3.       Figure out how to be healthy in the face of stressors. Stress is now linked to 70-90% of the reasons why people see a physician. There are two categories of stress: those inside your skin and those outside your skin. Stressors inside your skin would be physiological things like hidden infections, allergic reactions, leaky gut, poor quality sleep, autoimmunity and such. These things can be assessed and treated by a competent Integral Medicine practitioner. Stressors outside your skin don’t exist. All that exist outside your skin are potential stressors and they are only stress for you if they trigger the fight or flight reflex in you. Your fight or flight reflex is triggered any time you perceive yourself to be either threatened or spread too thin. The key word is “perceive.” One man’s stress is another man’s recreation. The difference between them is how they look at the experience. How you look at an experience is determined by your world view (guess that’s why they call it that.) Your world view is made up of beliefs. Through the practice of the Seven Tools of Healing, you can identify and correct your beliefs. The goal for reducing the adverse health effects of stress is to work your beliefs around so that the vast majority of what you face on a day to day basis does not trigger your fight or flight reflex. (I’m assuming you don’t live in a war zone, an inner city gang or are in the process of breaking bad.) Of course, you have to pick your battles. If you are in a stressful situation and there is anything you can do to improve the situation and you want to do it, you ought to. Only work your innards around to tolerate intolerable situations if you can’t change them. And may you have the wisdom to know the difference.

4.       Practice awareness. Your life is feeding you clues all the time from all directions: how you are feeling physically, how you are feeling emotionally, what you are thinking, how you are acting, patterns in relationships, your dreams, your likes and dislikes. Pick up on the clues and follow them back to the treasure (YOU!) Be uncompromisingly honest with yourself about the truth of your clues. If you are out on a treasure hunt and you modify all the clues you find to be more to your liking, chances are you’ll never find the treasure. We rationalize, sugar-coat, repress, deny, inflate, transfer and do all sorts of other Freudian things to our feelings and other clues and then wonder why we wander around lost so much of the time.

5.       Trust what you know. Trust is a choice.   

6.       Figure out how to be happy. There are so many very intelligent, very unhappy people in the world, I often wonder why they don’t use their intelligence to figure out how to be happy. “Seek and ye shall find.” It’s not “Seek and maybe you’ll find.” “Knock and the door shall be opened.” It’s not “Knock and maybe I’ll open the door if I’m not in the shower.” “The masters love the Tao because if the student seeks it, the student finds it.” Again, no “maybe” about it. These are famous sayings because they capture an important aspect of Consciousness. Your questions will be answered. Ask how you can be happy. Then start following your nose. Real, deep, unshakable happiness is independent of your life circumstances, it is an inside job. Health and Happiness often go together because they branch from the same trunk. You have that trunk inside of you; it’s part of being a human being. Seek and ye shall find.