The hidden effects of stress on your health – Part 1
Today we have a wonderfully insightful and very practical article on sneaky ways that stress affects our health – by Guest Writer, Dr Shamistra Barathan. This is the first of two parts.
Dr. Shamistra Barathan has been practising medicine for 15 years. She is a graduate of the Imperial College School of Medicine in London, and worked in the United Kingdom and New Zealand before settling in Melbourne. She is also a qualified Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) practitioner and practises mindfulness meditation daily. Lastly, she is a member of the Australasian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine (ACNEM), which enables her to constantly upgrade her skills and be part of a community of practitioners who are passionate about Integrative Medicine.
The hidden effects of stress
The “fight or flight response”. In simple terms, it means our body has a programmed response to a situation that we see as a threat to our existence. Yes, stories refer back to the cave man being confronted by the sabre toothed tiger and who subsequently switches on the body’s stress response to escape death. We have heard this story many times, but how is this applicable in the 21st century?
The strong emotions of fear, sadness, guilt, embarrassment and anger may switch on the exact same stress response that once was used to protect us from danger. But today, danger is encountered in the daily routine, for example being stuck in traffic and late for an important appointment, held up in a long supermarket queue or that unexpected bill that pops through the letter box.
Often we underestimate the powers of the stress response and undervalue the numerous chemical processes that take place in our body, keeping us alive and free from harm from today’s stressors. Each time the button is pressed, the adrenals kick in, the cortisol is pumped out, at the expense of other adrenal hormones which can cause the problems of dizziness and severe premenstrual symptoms over time. The gastrointestinal tract is placed further down the list of importance for energy expenditure and can respond with nausea and diarrhoea. The cortisol may demand the thyroid to slow down. This can result in under- active thyroid symptoms of weight gain, constipation and even hair loss. As time progresses, bowels may continue to play tricks and soon nutrient deficiencies emerge. More unexplained symptoms develop as the organs and chemical reactions are starved from the essential nutrients that the bowel once absorbed.
So, how can we protect ourselves from chronic exposure to the stress response? A suggestion is by looking at the way we speak and being aware of the stories we create in our mind, our internal dialogue. We use language that we have been accustomed to from childhood, family, school, social media, work and our life experiences. Our powerful influences in life determine how we perceive the world and our subsequent emotional reaction to an event. A single thought triggers an emotion which ultimately governs our behaviour. We soon develop habits along the way that appear to work for us. Yes, it’s just a habit and habits can be changed!
A great starting point is to be aware of thinking patterns. A few concepts are highlighted below to address common perceptions of how we believe the world works and often, a reason for a stress reaction.
Firstly, are our expectations of others, objects and experiences just too high? Expectations arise from past experiences, comparisons made with others and in general, influences in life. Expectations are constantly changing as we continue to process the world around us each day. Do we in fact need to have any expectations at all?
This leads me on to the belief and desire of wanting control of other people’s actions and the world around us. Are we trying to achieve a task that is unachievable? In reality, we have no control over others or events and perhaps, the sooner we believe that by letting go of control, we are in control?
I guess, this reiterates how the world, people, events are always changing. This concept is called impermanence. We grow, develop new ideas, beliefs and our understanding of the world is constantly evolving. As such, how can we expect everyone and everything around us to stay the same?
The last concept is called acceptance. This is perhaps the most difficult to fully understand and often can trigger conflicting thoughts. This refers to the acceptance of people’s character and situations that have taken place that are both out of our control at that moment in time. We are often battling with the concept of wanting events and people to be different and this can trigger the stress reaction.
So in summary, life will always throw us challenges, it’s just the way it is. We have the ability to manage such scenarios and create healthier emotions by being aware of our thinking patterns and the concepts of change, control, acceptance and expectations. This in turn can save our body from the repeated exposure to chronic stress.
Part 2 to follow…
Dr Shamistra Barathan
Integrative GP, Melbourne, Australia
MBBS ( UK), MRCGP, FRACGP, DFFP, DRCOG, ACNEM Member.
This article provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The words and other content provided in this article are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If you have a medical concern, you should consult with your medical practitioner. The views expressed in this article have no relation to those of any academic, hospital, practice or other institution with which the author is affliated.