Stress Simplified with Coach Logan
As science surges relentlessly forward a peculiar yet exciting thing is happening. The distinction between mind and body, which many thought would become more defined as our understanding of biology and neurology became more complete, actually seems to be blurring, and shrinking. A holistic health model in which the body and mind are one is emerging and it is my own personal opinion and prediction that the next 10 years will be revolutionary in terms of how we treat many diseases as well as how we pursue mental and physical improvement.
Here a few examples just so you know what I am talking about and we can all get on the same page:
- Evidence is now emerging that “exercising in your 30s and 40s — decades before Parkinson’s typically occurs — may reduce the risk of getting Parkinson’s disease by about 30%.” (Harvard Health Letter, March 2012)
- It has been shown that when we are attempting to learn a new task that requires motor control (Double-Unders? Snatch? Butterfly Pull-Ups?) sleep is an incredibly important part of mastering the task. “During non-REM sleep, slow brain waves bolster neural touchpoints that are directly related to a task that was newly learned while awake, while weakening neural links that are not, the researchers found.” (UCSF News Center, August 2017)
- Recent revelations about the enteric nervous system, a collection of 500 million neurons in the digestive tract show that it may be sending mood altering messages to our central nervous system resulting in symptoms of anxiety and depression. On the flip side of this coin, gastroenterologists have found success treating IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) with antidepressants. In the light of these discoveries the term “eating your feelings” starts to take on a much more profound meaning. (Johns Hopkins Medicine)
Another fascinating interplay between mind and body, and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the physiological response to stress. In the interest of keeping this blog short enough that you may actually read it, we will limit our scope to defining and explaining the stress response in a way that will allow you to start identifying it in your own lives. Then in a future blog, we can investigate a model of stress management.
I apologize in advance for subjecting you to a 9th grade essay faux pax, but if we are going to talk about stress we do need at least a basic definition to work from.
Physiology . a specific response by the body to a stimulus, as fear or pain, that disturbs or interferes with the normal physiological equilibrium of an organism.
physical, mental, or emotional strain or tension:
This second sentence is typically how we think about stress, with a distinction between physical, mental, and emotional forms of stress. But notice that in the first sentence fear (an emotional response), and pain (a physical response) are both said to cause the same interference with physiological equilibrium.
Ok. Now let’s simplify this even further. Stress is stress is stress. While you might perceive a difference when you experience physical, mental, or emotional stress, your body does not. The physiological response to any stressor is the same regardless of source. “The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine [adrenaline] triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.” (Harvard Health Letter, May 2018)
This is the fabled “flight or flight” response and we’ve all felt it at some point. As a CrossFitter you might even be a little addicted to the feeling, seeking it out in your workouts. And yes, even exercise is stress.
Wait a second…What? We all know that stress = bad right? And now I am telling you that exercise = stress. Therefore exercise = bad?
Slow up. The equation isn’t that simple. Though the word “stress” has come to have negative connotations, stress is not inherently bad. Stress can actually be very good for us. Stress is required for adaptation and growth whether it be physical (building muscle, or cardiovascular endurance) mental (learning new skills and acquiring knowledge) or emotional (developing empathy, resilience, and emotional control). Those things can’t happen without stress, and most of us would agree that they are good things. As General Patton said, “Pressure makes diamonds”.
Stress, however, like most good things, can be bad when you have too much. A basic rule of thumb is that acute stressors, those that have a finite end are ok, while chronic stressors, those that continue over days/weeks/months will start causing problems.
Examples of acute stressors would be exercise, where the stressor is removed shortly after you finish your workout. Or an exam at school where the majority of that stress is released once the exam is over, or even watching a scary movie that might get your heart rate and adrenaline up but is over after 90 minutes or so.
In these cases the body is able to return to homeostasis relatively quickly and the potential negative effects of having engaged the “fight or flight” response are minimal or, in the case of exercise, vastly outweighed by the positive effects.
Examples of chronic stress would be extended illness or poor diet (physical), a highly demanding job or financial problems (mental), or losing a loved one (emotional)
When the body is exposed to stressors like these that perpetuate for long periods of time the initial adrenaline response is similar, however “as the initial surge of epinephrine [adrenaline] subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis.”(Harvard Health Letter, May 2018). As the brain continues to perceive a situation as dangerous, hormones that would typically return to normal levels are kept elevated by the HPA axis. When these “fight or flight” hormones are elevated for long periods of time they can take their toll.
Cortisol is one of these hormones that we need to take special interest in. It is responsible for increasing appetite and storing fat. This is a great natural defense if you are starving to death in the cold because all the mammoths have migrated south, but not really what you want when you’ve been working 13 hours a day at the office for the last 3 months trying to finish a work project. Remember though, the body doesn’t differentiate between types of stress. No matter what the stressor, your body is preparing you to fight off a sabertooth tiger and hide in a cave for 3 weeks with only a snickers bar to get you through. For this reason, if you experience long term stress, you can fully expect that your body will be more prone to gaining fat and less inclined to lose it.
Yes. I know this is a real bummer. It seems like when things are hardest our bodies start to betray us as well. But at least now we know why it is happening. Now you know why sometimes even when your diet is perfect you just can’t lose that fat. And as the wise and venerable G.I. Joe once said, “Knowing is half the battle”. Keep an eye out for my next blog where we will explore a model of stress management that can help you get back on track when life seems intent on beating you down.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I hope it was educational.
Johns Hopkins Medicine, The Brain-Gut Connection
Harvard Health Publishing, Understanding the stress response, May, 2018
Harvard Health Publishing, Another reason to get out there and get moving, March, 2012
Devika G. Bansal, UCSF News Center, Deep Sleep Reinforces the Learning of New Motor Skills, August 2017