Miss me? No? Oh, well. Why have I returned to rock your world (you being Peter and my mom)? In light of the fact that I’ve spent the last few weeks working an office job (I’m all grow’d up now!), I’ll be writing a series of posts on stress. Get excited. Or not.
The “Mind-Body Connection”: Misleading terminology and what it means to you
“Mind-body connection” is a hot term these days among New Age asshats spouting bullshit, the scientific community presenting the findings of a new study, and everyone in between. What I want to convey to you in this series is just what this term means and what are its implications for each of us. Even before we begin, I’d argue that the use of the word “connection” itself is misleading; it suggests some kind of dualism in which two separate entities interact with each other on occasion. As will become clear soon enough, the relationship between the mind and body is more than just connected and is, in a word, important. Moreover, it is important in ways that you may not recognize now, from how your body digests and stores food to your risk of developing heart disease or diabetes. Cool shit, I know. If you learn nothing else from this post, remember that the stuff going on around you and your mental reaction to it affects just about everything in your body–even the little shit that you might assume functions independently of everything else. You may be familiar with some of the superficial concepts that I’ll touch upon today, but I expect that you will find yourself learning more and more as the series continues. Or so I hope. At this point, I’ve probably managed to lose all but one or two readers (the two being Peter and/or my mom), but, nevertheless, lets meet the star of this series, stress.
Stress: What it is and what it does to you
Why do you have trouble falling asleep the night before a big exam? What allows a zebra to escape from a lion in a chase across the savannah? The answer: stress and the body’s stress-response. While I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty details of this mechanism for now (that’ll be a later post [“Oh joy!” you exclaim]), here’s the takeaway point: in human beings, physical and psychological stress produce similar reactions in the body. In other words, worrying about an interview and sprinting away from a hungry lion are practically the same insofar as your body’s physiological response is concerned. Moreover, as animals, our bodies are much better adapted for the physical stressors, which tend to be infrequent and short in duration as opposed to psychological stressors, which are often frequent and 24/7. These psychological stressors, though, make up the majority of the stress in our lives. By way of example, consider the commons worries of a zebra and compare that to your own worries. You get the point.
Well, so what? What are the repercussions of living with the chronic stress that has become entrenched in our daily lives? To answer this question, it helps to use the parallel scenario of opening a long-term savings account. You open this account on the condition that you won’t touch the money for years and, in return for your obedience, you earn some high interest rates and get a good return on your investment. All is good at first, but the next day you come rushing back to the bank because you need money now. You withdraw the money that you need, but you pay a fine. You leave the bank and swear that you’ll never do that again, but soon enough you find yourself in another financial crisis and you come rushing back to the bank in urgent need of some cash. This time, though, the fine you pay is a little costlier. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to see where this is going.
So what are these “fines” that you pay? I’ll elaborate more in future posts, but here are a few examples of how chronic stress impacts the body: your reproductive system gets thrown out of whack (testosterone drops in men and cycles become irregular in females), your immune system functions worse, and growth hormone plummets. What’s the commonality? All of these are “long-term projects” and your body just doesn’t have the time or energy to devote to these tasks when you’re hauling ass across the savannah so that you don’t end up as Mufasa’s lunch. Rather, your body wants energy in its muscles and improved sensory capabilities, which, as you can imagine, are useful things when your ass is literally on the line. In moderation, your body can adapt to these stressful situations and your long-term projects can thrive. Put your body into fight-or-flight mode too often, though, and you run into trouble.
What’s to come: More stuff you won’t read
I’ll leave it at that for now. Gold star if you got this far (all none of you). In the coming posts (perhaps an oxymoron in the context of this blog) I’ll detail the mechanisms of the stress response, highlight the many ways in which chronic stress affects your body, and offer some effective methods that will help you manage stress. If you’re interested in learning more about all things stress, check out Robert Sapolsky’s excellent book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (and now you realize where I plagiarized the title of this series from) or read Chris Kresser’s informative article on stress and stress management HERE.
You stay classy, non-existent readers.