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What No One Told Me About Stress

Stress, man.

As it’s stress management month at Functionize I’m using this blog as an opportunity to talk about stress, stressors, and the effects of stress.

It should come as no surprise that stress plays a major part in overall wellness, as it seems like that it is all we hear or read about these days.

It can be confusing how exactly stress influences systemic wellness. I always assumed it was a cop-out suggestion made by healthcare providers who are out of answers. When providers would tell me some of my issues were stress-induced, it felt like a “Hail Mary” explanation for something they maybe didn’t fully understand. Well, as it turns out, I was the one who did not fully understand! Truthfully, I always thought stress was a nebulous, undefined force that was impossible to pin down.

Much like pain, stress has many different shapes, forms, effects, drivers, and is largely subjective. One person’s stress might be another’s vacation.

I’ll give you an example: my fiancée and I are planning our honeymoon to Hawaii. I have booked us a night time snorkeling trip to feed manta rays and I am ECSTATIC, while she...well, she wants NOTHING to do with it. Every time we talk about it she essentially breaks out in hives. This is a silly example of how a situation can cause stress for one person, but not for another. (This is what I mean by ‘nebulous.’)

But, what is not nebulous is that stress is driven by cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone and primarily produced in the adrenal gland. It is released in response to perceived stressful situations and functions to increase blood sugar, suppress the immune system, aids to metabolize fat, protein, and carbohydrates, and decreases bone formation.

“You mean cortisol can suppress the immune system, mess with how we metabolize nutrients, and decrease bone formation?!”

YUP! Crazy, right? Just do a quick google search on the effects of cortisol... you might be surprised!

So stress is no longer nebulous now that we understand that cortisol is a (one of many) driver behind how our body responds to stressors.

But what may still seem nebulous (can you guess what the word of the day is??) is why we individually have vastly different stress responses to a variety of situations, thoughts, or experiences.

This is where “know thyself” is essential in learning to manage cortisol spikes.

One disclaimer I should mention is that stress, when channeled and managed properly, can be a huge ally. Without some underlying levels of stress we would likely not be nearly as productive as we are. Stress can be a good motivator! It can help keep us alive when presented without dangerous situations. We would likely not have survived as a species for as long as we have without some stress. HOWEVER, unmanaged, excessive stress is not a good thing.

Which brings me back to my early statement: know thyself! Self reflection, guided meditation, talk therapy, and countless other modalities can be amazing tools for you to learn more about yourself, and thus manage your own stressors and regain your locus of control.

This is simple, but not easy. It takes a willingness to get uncomfortable, to sometimes get vulnerable and intentional with our own thoughts, actions, past events, present circumstances, etc. But there is beauty in being able to stare our stressors in the eye and see it for what it is. I love the idea of that which we renounce has power over us--therefore, the trick is not to renounce anything, but to see things for what they are.

It is worth saying that not all stress can be managed via these methods. Sometimes we need medication, and that’s okay! Just like certain heart conditions require medications, so do certain stress-related conditions. If your body isn’t makin’ what you need, store-bought is just as good.

The overall message from this is that stress is REAL. Both in origin and effect.

So, next time a provider tells you that your stress is a problem and you think, “that just means it’s all in my head,” please remember this out of context quote from the famous Albus Dumbledore:

“of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

In fact, world leading scholar, Dr. Caleb Finch, professor at USC School of Gerontology (study of aging), indicates that stress/stress management influences at least 20% of healthy aging. YOWZA! That’s a lot.

So next time you think about stress, know that it is normal, important, real, AND, most importantly, manageable.


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