While all animals have a ‘fight or flight’ response to danger, we humans struggle to turn it off. These prolonged bouts of emotional disturbances result in ulcers, exhaustion and other factors that severely damage our health
A lot has changed in the last 100 or so years. Back in the 1900s, pneumonia, tuberculosis and influenza were killing more people than any world war.
Medical improvements have curtailed the spread of these illnesses — nowadays the main killers are slow-growing diseases such as heart disease, cancer and cerebro-vascular disorders.
Another big change is that we have 100 times more stress today than back in the 1900s and it affects us on several levels — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
We are beginning to recognise the complex intertwining of our biology and our emotions, and the endless ways in which our feelings and thoughts reflect and influence the events in our bodies. Extreme emotional disturbances can adversely affect us, and this kind of stress increases the risk of diseases.
A critical shift in medicine has been the recognition that many of the slow-accumulation diseases can either be caused or made worse by stress.
Robert Sapolsky, in his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, explains the differences we have developed, compared to other mammals, when it comes to stress. Zebras experience acute physical stress, such as when they are chased by predators.
The vast majority of their stresses are short-term, after which things return to normal. When stressed, their ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system is activated. This allows the body to increase heart rate, increase blood pressure, release adrenaline, shut down digestion and lower the zebra’s immune system so he has more energy to either fight or flee his predator.
Humans, however, suffer more from psychological or social stress. These stresses are longer in duration and tend to include worries over family relationships, money, presentations or exams.
When we sit around and worry about stressful things we turn on the same physiological responses as the zebra being chased by the lion, but our responses are switched on for months on end, worrying about recessions, mortgages, relationships, etc, not our ability to stay alive. This is why we get ulcers while zebras do not.
One of the godfathers of stress physiology, Hans Seyle, conducted studies in the 1930s on rats. The rats were chased regularly before receiving injections. It became apparent that even when the rats were not receiving the injections, the fear and anticipation of an injection was causing ulcers.
This means that the stress response can eventually become more damaging than the stressor itself.
When we turn on the stress response we eventually struggle to turn it off. Prolonged stress can lead to exhaustion, irregular menstrual cycles in women and lower testosterone in men. Stress also affects our homeostasis. This is the body’s ability to balance oxygen, acidity and temperature.
Like anything in life, prevention is better than cure. Your goal should be to reduce your stress.
The concept of a work-life balance is a bit of a myth. You need to be like a light bulb, switched on when you need to be and then be able to switch off. If you have the dimmer on all the time you are still burning energy and activating your fight or flight nervous system.
Cancer cuts across all denominations. It doesn’t distinguish between race, gender or bank balances and no amount of money can alleviate stress and anxiety.
You have only one body and it talks to you — do me a favour and listen to it.