The saying ‘stress kills’ was not something that Dr. Peter Attia (a Canadian-American physician who studies the science of longevity) initially believed in. But ever since Dr. Attia began his research into the endocrine system (the system responsible for making and releasing hormones), his understanding on how stress effects the human body has developed and deepened.
Attia has had multiple career changes, from working in general surgery, to working at the National Cancer Institute. Today he is known for his study of longevity, his bestselling book Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity, and his popular podcast The Drive.
In Episode 51 of The Drive Attia and his guest, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, (neuroscientist) discuss in-depth the effects of stress on our bodies. Attia explains, “When we’re under stress, levels of many hormones change in our body. Some have minor effects on us. But the two big ones [are] adrenaline… and the second big stress hormones are glucocorticoids…”
Glucocorticoids include multiple hormones, but cortisol is commonly understood to be the body’s main stress hormone. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is produced by your adrenal glands. Cortisol is primarily responsible for regulating your body’s response to stress. When you are stressed, increased cortisol is released into your bloodstream. Having the right balance of cortisol is essential for your health – producing too much or too little cortisol can be harmful to your health.
So what exactly does excessive stress do to your body?
PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF STRESS
When a threat is perceived, the body is flooded with stress hormones including cortisol, which induces the ‘fight or flight’ reaction humans experience. This reaction diverts energy from certain body systems, like metabolism, and gives our muscles a boost. Like Attia says on The Drive, “When the tiger is there, this is what gets you to jump into the tree.”
But in our modern world, you’re not facing tigers very often. More likely, you’re facing strict work deadlines, juggling family issues and children’s schedules, supporting elderly parents or grandparents, and committing to social/community/church obligations. You might be a healthcare worker, a police officer, a firefighter or an EMT, and have to face life or death situations at any given moment. You might be a shift worker, constantly sacrificing a regular sleep schedule for your job.
The physical effects of living day to day with too much stress can include: insomnia or disturbed sleep, stomach aches or headaches, high blood pressure, or a racing heartbeat which can feel like constant anxiety.
A moderate or balanced amount of stress can be good for the body, it can motivate you and help you overcome challenges. But when the stress is persistent and constant, it does much more harm than good. According to Dr. Sapolsky having too much cortisol in your body can affect the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that is essential to learning and memory. The hippocampus is the main region of the brain that is damaged during Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s very sensitive to glucocorticoids, i.e., the stress hormone cortisol.
“I actually don’t really think stress kills you outright very often, but it sure makes other things that kill you more effective at doing it,” says Sapolsky. He explains that essentially, too much cortisol will make your brain age faster. Memory suffers as synapses within the brain are disconnected and new neurons are unable to connect due to the excess amount of cortisol.
According to an article in Everyday Health by Denise Schipani, stress has been linked to many physical issues, including disease. While stress hormones can help stimulate the body and ready it for emergencies, too much stress (or chronic stress) can activate the inflammatory response in the brain. This then leads to chronic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
EMOTIONAL EFFECTS OF STRESS
Stress can make you feel out of control, and might lead you to develop unhealthy coping mechanisms such as consuming alcohol, overeating/stress eating, or impulse shopping. Prolonged stress also can lead to anxiety and depression, difficulty concentrating, and being impatient or short-tempered.
Even social media seems to contribute to the stress and emotional strain that many people feel today. Before social media, you’d have to go out of your way to see people who lived ‘better off’ than you. Now all you have to do is open your phone, and a spotlight seems to shine upon everything you lack, and everything others have (or might be pretending to have) on social media. As Sapolsky explains, social media amplifies envy, and can make you feel depressed, alone, unworthy and, basically, just plain stressed about your life. Social media can also place pressure on you to be constantly productive, and feel guilty about taking ‘down time’ to relax.
HOW TO MANAGE STRESS
Meditation is often encouraged to reduce stress, and Attia is a big advocate for it. Deep breathing techniques, journaling, exercise, practicing gratitude and organizing your time are all helpful ways to manage stress.
It can be beneficial to make a list of the stressors in your life—whether they are small or big, or whether they are in your control or out of it. Once you have a list written down you can organize and prioritize. Separate your list into the ‘small’ and ‘big’ tasks or ‘urgent’ vs ‘less important.’ Even tackling minor items on your list can help reduce the pressure and anxiety you are feeling.
You can also better manage your stress by reducing procrastination. “Whether you are an occasional procrastinator or a serial procrastinator, your delays and avoidance amp up your stress levels,” states Psychology Today. While avoiding an unpleasant task can provide you with some temporary or short-term relief from your stress, over time, the stress and anxiety actually builds and begins to feel overwhelming.
You may have life stressors that are beyond your control, perhaps the illness of a loved one or getting laid off from a job. It might be hard but try to stay positive and focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. Remember to take care of your own physical health. Leaning on negative coping mechanisms will only make you feel worse in the long run. Do your best to eat healthy, exercise, take time for yourself, and practise good sleep habits. For tips on healthy sleep hygiene, check out our previous article. If you find yourself envious or feeling depressed when you use social media, consider taking a break, limiting your time on app, or unfollowing the accounts that focus on lavish lifestyles. Ask yourself, ‘Does seeing this benefit me? Does it help me? Does it make me feel good?’ Then you can adjust your online use to be more supportive of your emotional health.
If you are struggling with the effects of long-term stress, reach out to us at Family & Child Development. We have therapists who are trained in helping clients better manage their stress and anxiety. We would be happy to schedule a meeting with one of our therapists. We offer both in-person and telehealth appointments.