Q: Dr. Scott, chronic stress is my family’s biggest problem. Constant financial worries and emotional upsets have worn us out. What can natural medicine do about stress?
A: Stress-induced illness now causes far more deaths and diseases than do infections, which used to be the predominant killer in industrialized societies. Today most of us will live long enough and well enough to get seriously ill with a stress-related disease. And given that most of us would rather have this happen later than sooner, it’s really important to learn about the links between stress and disease.
Though most people can cope with a great deal of stress (emotional and physical trauma) in early life, this ability tends to diminish as your life progresses. There are also inherited characteristics which influence our capacity for coping. Importantly, there are environmental factors which also determine to what extent stress can influence our physical and mental health. Important among these are nutritional considerations, structural and lifestyle factors, exercise patterns, general fatigue, and the sum total of your stress.
Stress is the spur which moves us into action and if our responses are not appropriate, it can also become the mountain that buries us. There is a point where our body’s capacity for adaptation and adjustment in the face of stress becomes inadequate. When this occurs, health begins to break down in obvious ways.
Anxiety in the face of changes in health and the onset of pain quickens the downward spiral. If you wait for this stage before taking corrective action, you may have waited too long. However it is possible to regain health from this point, but only with great effort.
If you can begin to see that a repetitive cycle occurs in which life stresses are poorly coped with, and that the end result of this is depression and mental and physical ill-health, then your need to gain control of the underlying causes becomes clear. Control of the emotions comes through understanding and awareness so that negative feelings can be replaced with positive ones.
The importance of reviewing and altering your diet, exercise and rest patterns, lifestyle and personal attitude, as well as your behavior patterns (many of which are within our conscious control) are all features of a comprehensive protection plan which can deflect many of the potentially harmful effects of stress in your modern, hectic daily life. The key to such a change is awareness of where the key to improving things in your daily life lies, to a realization that there are other ways of seeing things, that these may be more health-enhancing than your current approaches, and that we need to challenge our present attitudes and beliefs.
As you alter your attitudes, so will your feelings change, and this is because it is your thoughts which govern your emotions. If you can learn to see your emotions as a mirror of your thoughts, and if you are aware that your emotions are in turmoil, or that they lead you to inappropriate responses, you then can see that it is the way you think which needs to be addressed before changes will come in your emotions and stress-coping skills.
Q: Why does stress tire me out so fast?
A: Let’s look at what happens when psychological stress impacts our physical bodies. First, chemical changes take place in the brain where substances such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and many other neurotransmitters are produced which dramatically alters the excitability of nerve cells. Along with these changes in hormonal substances come muscular changes, with consequent postural alterations, hunched shoulders for example.
If these muscular stresses are held for more than a short period of time, there occurs a reduction in blood flow through the affected tissues, leading to a diminished flow of freshly oxygenated blood, as well as a poor drainage effort, leaving waste products in your tissues that remain relatively stationary. Excessive levels of calcium, lactic acid, and various other acids then build up which further increase the tendency towards muscle pain and weakness.
Eventually these changes – less oxygen and more toxic waste products – produce discomfort or pain, and reduce your energy output (the musculoskeletal system is the body’s primary user of energy) leading to even further muscle fatigue and chronic dysfunction.
Stress is cumulative and a relatively minor event, when added to a large existing load, can prove to be more than the body’s adaptation process can successfully cope with.
Some or all of the following are necessary to bring stress disorders under control: 1) Thorough functional examination in order to determine which system is suffering the most, 2) Dietary changes, 3) Stress reduction, 4) Withdrawal from stimulants, and 5) Determine the type of nutritional supplements that may be needed.
Dr. Scott Cuthbert is the chief clinician at the Chiropractic Health Center in Pueblo, Colorado, as well as the author of two new textbooks and over 50 peer-reviewed research articles. PuebloChiropracticCenter.com.