Stress is the cause of most western diseases
We all have to endure stress in our daily life. These days we are constantly bombarded with a fast pace of life that it can be difficult to keep up with. Some stress, once in a while, is actually healthy and will keep you on top of your game. But almost all of us experience an onslaught of stress from having to pay bills, meet deadlines, score high on exams, keep our jobs, maintain our relationships and care for our loved ones. When under constant stress, even though your stress level might be low, it can actually have a tremendous effect on our physical and mental health. 90% of western diseases are caused indirectly by stress. Stress causes autoimmune diseases, stomach ulcers, IBS, heart problems, skin problems, adrenal fatigue, insomnia, depression and the list goes on. Basically, if we learn how to manage our stress and lower our stress levels, we attack the main root of most of our diseases. So what actually happens when you are stressed?
The fight or flight mode
When you are confronted with a stressful situation it triggers your sympathetic nervous system, or what we like to call the ‘fight or flight’ mode. This will prepare your body for action. Your body releases stress hormones, your heart rate might go up, blood pressure will go up and you will feel more ‘wired.’ Even functions like your immune system, that are less immediately essential, are getting shut down to a certain degree. Our body still responds the same as our ancestors’ did when they had the actual possibility of being faced with a saber-toothed tiger and had to either run or fight for their lives. It is highly unlikely that we will have to deal with angry saber-toothed tigers now, but unfortunately our body still responds the same way to our daily stress factors. Our body even responds like that when our stress level is low!
It explains why some people enjoy being stressed to a certain degree; they feel more alert, ready for action and they feel like they perform better. However, when we are constantly functioning in the ‘fight or flight’ mode you can imagine serious consequences this will have for our long-term health. Our ancestors only had to deal with immediate danger once in a while and afterwards they would recover for longer periods of time. Since we are constantly being pressured, we don’t have the chance to recover; so keeping on top of our game completely exhausts our body and minds.
In an attempt to manage this stress, we try to wind down in other ways. We come back home from a long and stressful day of work, we feel ‘tired but still wired’ and want to relax and not think about all the things we still ‘have to do.’ But for a lot of us it is hard to ‘switch off’ and stop stressing about it all, even when we are done with work. So we pour ourselves a glass of wine and put on the television and completely zone out. We endlessly watch episodes of the new series, or even reality shows, and we disappear in the life of someone else. Or we go on social media and endlessly scroll through our news feed to escape all the stress. On the weekend we have fun, we wind down, we meet friends and most of us party. We drink, we use drugs and, when Sunday comes around we are completely exhausted from the entire workweek, from abusing our bodies with alcohol and/or drugs and from a lack of sleep. We will start off again on Monday still tired, still stressed and ready to repeat the cycle over again.
Although it does bring temporary relief to unwind like this, in the long term it will actually makes us feel more stressed and more exhausted. This is because you just ‘zone out’ but your mind doesn’t actually get’s the rest it needs. Watching television for long hours will only make you feel more tired and disrupt your sleep patterns. Needless to say that drinking and staying up late will just make your brain foggy and exhaust your body.
It is no wonder that most of us are stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted when we live this kind of lifestyle. Its the kind of lifestyle that leaves us disappointed with life and wanting something more. So how do we manage our behaviour more effectively?
The rest and digest mode
The parasympathetic nervous system, or “rest and digest” system is (you guessed it), the opposite of the fight or flight mode. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our restoration and bringing our body back into balance. When this system is activated your body responds by lowering your heart rate, relaxing your muscles and, even more importantly, releasing your digestive enzymes.
All these physical changes are necessary for the body to restore itself, to maintain a healthy digestive system, to have energy during the day and keep a healthy balance in general. It is the counterbalance of the fight and flight mode and without it the balance is gone and you will exhaust your resources.
It is the age-old story of Yin and Yang; without the balance we will become sick, exhausted and depressed.
Mindfulness and stress management
There are a few simple things you can do to manage your stress in a healthy way.
- Reduce stress factors
- Relate differently to stress factors
- Activate the rest and digest system
Mindfulness can help you with all three activities. By bringing awareness to your life it is easier to see which factors in your life are causing you unnecessary stress that you could eliminate. Sometimes we are so stuck in our own patterns and our own ways that we don’t notice that something is no longer serving us and is even making us unhappy and stressed out.
Mindfulness is highly effective in changing how you relate to your stressful thoughts. Because you develop more awareness about the thoughts you are having, you can more easily stop your train of thought and come back to your senses. It has been proven to restore balance in the body and mind, simply by learning how to listen to your body’s signals and knowing how to act on them.
By practicing Mindfulness meditation, you activate the rest and digest system in the most effective way. (1)You will actually feel more rested, more emotionally and physically balanced and have greater mental clarity. If you do your meditation everyday you will notice how much more energy you have and how much less you are affected by external factors that you have no control over anyway. You will be able to accept what you cannot change instead of worrying and stressing about it. It has been well proven that Mindfulness meditation changes your brain! It reduces the reactivity of the area of the brain that is responsible for stress.(2)
- Benson, H., Beary, J., & Carol, M. (1974). The relaxation response. Psychiatry. 19, 37. 37-45.6.
- Goldin, P. & Gross, J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion. 10, 1. 83-91.