3 Surprises about Stress

The surprising ways that Stress hurts you, and how yoga can help.

 

I’m absolutely certain that you already know that stress isn’t that great. You’ve felt it in your own body: the raised heart rate, the jitteriness, the sleeplessness, perhaps the anxiety or emotional eating…

And I am also sure you are aware of the main negative health effects! But just to make sure here is a quick list

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Auto-imune conditions
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Weight gain and diabetes
  • A reduced immune defence against viral infections

So…. That’s said! Shall I just end my blog there?

Well, the picture is actually a little more interesting, so I’d like to talk about 3 surprises about stress.

These surprises are based a fantastic review of the scientific research by Connor et al. (2021). It’s a heavy read, so I’ll give you a whistle-stop tour.

However, if you’re up for putting your nerd glasses on, then have a look at the reference to the full article at the end!

 

Extremely Strong Evidence

Connor et al. (2021) state that “the cumulative science linking stress to negative health outcomes is vast” (Just think: heart disease, auto-immune disease, obesity, dementia). If this is all that you rake away from today’s blog – then that’s great!

Once we understand how bad mental stress is, then we might be motivated to take steps to help manage our own stress response in everyday life.

However, it’s not as simple as stress = bad, no stress = good.

In fact, it’s all about our own RESPONSE to a stress. Does your body response very quickly and intensely? Does it then release the stress quickly? Or are you not able to adequately response to a stress?

This brings me to the first surprise about stress.

 

1) It’s complicated: The Goldilocks of Stress Response

Being constantly stressed is not good, yet when our bodies have a too low stress response this isn’t good either! A healthy stress response looks a little like the Goldilocks story!

When we have constant work or life stress, then our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is always on. (The ‘Fight or Flight’ system).

This chronic activation of the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system is called autonomic imbalance. This is associated with a wide range of mental and physical negative health consequences, including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and even psychotic disorders.

Stress shows up in DIFFERENT ways!

Job and life stress can increase the production of the stress-hormone Cortisol. However, people with burnout, fatigue, exhaustion or Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome generally have too LOW levels of Cortisol. Researchers agree that both situations are associated with poor health!

A healthy body ideally is able to produce adequate stress hormones (not too much, not too little – but the Goldilocks amount) when a threat is perceived. Then, soon after the ‘threat’ has gone a healthy body can relax again.

The issue with modern life is that our bodies perceive threats pretty consistently throughout the entire day!

 

2) Playing Havoc on the Immune System!

Stress literally changes your gene expression. Most importantly, the expression of the genes governing our immune system!

Scientists used to think that stress only down-regulated the immune system, but now there is lots of evidence that it can act in two opposite directions! (Both up-regulation and down-regulation).

This is why stress can cause inflammation-related diseases such as heart disease and autoimmune conditions (due to increased activity of the immune system). Yet, stress can also cause impaired responses to viral infections and vaccinations (due to immune suppression).

In fact, scientists believe that when the hormone cortisol is consistently high in response to chronic stress, the immune cells become blunted to the signal to switch off, resulting in a mild but persistent level of inflammation.

Chronic inflammation (an overactive immunise system) is a body-wide problem that is linked to a variety of negative health effects such as problems in your bowls, skin rashes, polycystic ovarian syndrome, tendonitis and joint issues to name just a few.

Yet, in other situations stress can lower the effectiveness of the immune system’s ability to fight viral infections.

So, stress is a real bugbear! It plays complete havoc on our immune system.

 

3) Yoga & mindfulness change gene expression (in the opposite way to stress)!

I realise that the previous sections were a little heavy. So here is the good news… We can do something about it!

Early intervention trials on groups of people especially prone to stress (i.e. breast cancer survivors with persistent fatigue, and carers of family members with dementia) have show to counteract the negative effects of stress on the immune system. (Black et al., 2013, Bower et al., 2014).

Specifically, 12 minutes daily meditation for for 8 weeks by 39 family dementia caregivers, resulted in the up-regulation of genes involved in anti-viral immunity, and down-regulation of genes involved in inflammation in the body. (Black et all., 2013)

Similar up-regulation of genes involved in anti-viral immunity, and down-regulation of genes involved in inflammation was also seen after 16 Breast cancer survivors with persistent cancer-related fatigue participated in 12 weeks of Iyengar Yoga (Bower et al., 2014).

Thats exciting!

 

The take-away message?

If you’ve made it this far… hurrah!! It’s difficult to talk about this topic in an easy-to-read way. So, well done for persisting!

Here are few things that might help you deal with everyday stressors:

1. It’s not stress itself, but your RESPONSE.

There’s no need to avoid stress entirely (and it’s not possible!) The important thing is to work on your OWN reaction. Try to stop and think about whether a stressful event is worthy of a high or low stress response from you.

(Is it life threatening? Then high stress is warranted. If it’s not… then maybe a lower reaction).

If you DO get very stressed, then try to take a deep breath when the moment is over so that you can let goooooo of the stress response, and come out of your ‘fight or flight’ nervous system again.

 

 2. Try yoga or mindfulness!

I’m biassed, I know. But there is also a lot of evidence now that yoga and/or a mindfulness practice is REALLY helpful in helping us change our stress-response (see a previous blog on this here!).

Stressful things WILL happen in life, but the way we RESPOND to them can change. But this takes practice, and I believe yoga can help with this.

I am personally someone who is prone to stress and anxiety, and this is why my yoga practice is something sacred to me. I’m convinced it helps me stay calm in situations where I could otherwise drown in emotional stress. (Not that I keep my cool all the time!!!)

I’d love for you to benefit in this way too!

Need a little help?

If you need a little help getting started with 15-20 minutes of mindful yoga at home have a little look at my classes… 😉

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I hope you enjoyed this mini blog. 🤓

Please share your views in the comments below!

Jolanthe x


Reference

Black, D. S., Cole, S. W., Irwin, M. R., Breen, E., Cyr, N. M. S., Nazarian, N., … & Lavretsky, H. (2013). Yogic meditation reverses NF-κB and IRF-related transcriptome dynamics in leukocytes of family dementia caregivers in a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38(3), 348-355.

Bower, J. E., Greendale, G., Crosswell, A. D., Garet, D., Sternlieb, B., Ganz, P. A., … & Cole, S. W. (2014). Yoga reduces inflammatory signaling in fatigued breast cancer survivors: a randomized controlled trial. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 43, 20-29.

O’Connor, D. B., Thayer, J. F., & Vedhara, K. (2021). Stress and health: A review of psychobiological processes. Annual review of psychology, 72, 663-688.

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