We live in stressful times. Stress at work and at home to meet deadlines and exceed expectations and the added stress of not doing justice to oneself. The reasons for getting stressed could be multifarious. Unfortunately, stress just doesn’t make you feel awful, it actually hurts your body at the cellular level and is a harbinger of diseases, both acute and chronic. Psychological stress that we feel easily manifests into physiological stress and creates an environment within our body that is conducive to the development of myriad diseases.
So what is physiological stress and how is it the cause of diseases? Stress is an evolutionary feature that has helped our ancestors (and also helps us in many ways) cope with danger. Imagine our earliest ancestors, primate-like beings who had just started walking on two wobbly legs. Now, one of our ancestors is making her way through the forest towards her cave. Suddenly a smilodon jumps in front of her (who or what is a smilodon, you ask? Remember Diego, with his long canine teeth in the Ice Age movies?). What happens to our ancestor?
This is a classic scenario of imminent, life-threatening danger. This is a true stressful situation and it elicits, what is known as, a “fight or flight response.” In such a situation, our ancestor has only two options – to fight the smilodon or to flee. In order to fight or flee, the body prepares itself in a fascinating manner. All metabolic activities are directed towards preparing the body to fight or flee. Energy is directed towards these activities. All non-essential activities are given secondary preference. Stored nutrients rush towards the muscle cells to give them all the energy they require to address the situation. A mélange of chemicals are released that sharpen our instincts and make our brain extra vigilant. I guess fleeing from the spot with all the energy would have been the best option for our ancestor in this scenario.
In today’s world, we are in no danger from an apex carnivore and yet we see daily situations as being a threat to our lives. For example, if I am not able to meet the deadline to complete the presentation, I perceive the awful situation my boss will put me in front of all of my colleagues as a serious threat. He may also put a negative remark against my name that may act as a detriment to my progress. While there is no actual threat to my life, my mind perceives it as such. This elicits a fight or flight response. Now, in such a response, as we saw earlier, the body puts everything else on standby. Among these is our immune system. When your body is preparing to fight or flee, protecting itself from infectious organisms is the last thing on its mind. It simply redirects its resources away from the immune system. A weakened immune system is thus unable to protect us effectively from bacterial, viral and fungal invaders. And since we are constantly stressed, our immune system is in a state of constant suppression, making our body prone to infections.
Now let us see how stress causes chronic diseases. During a fight or flight response, the liver starts releasing stored glucose as muscles would need it to prepare the body for either a battle or for that long run. This creates a transient hyperglycemic state within our body. With constant stress, this hyperglycemic (high blood glucose levels in the blood) state persists, giving rise to diabetes.
So now you know how psychological stress manifests into physiological stress and creates a weakened environment within our body that gives rise to different diseases. The key here it to understand that whatever happens to us in our work and private lives, it is not worth the trouble we put our bodies through. Practicing stress management activities like mindfulness, yoga and meditation go a long way in keeping our bodies healthy.