By Mark Lundegren
Stress matters. Though it can seem purely psychological and abstract, stress is more deeply a physical phenomenon that tangibly affects our health, well-being, and even longevity.
A new study, published jointly by medical researchers at Harvard University and the University of British Columbia, underscores this critical point and the importance of managing both intense and chronic stress for a long, happy, and healthy life.
In the new study, published in Circulation and summarized in the medical press, the research team found that people subject to extreme stress, in the form of the death of a loved one, were 21 times more likely to have a heart attack in the first 24 hours after the death and six times more likely in the first week. Both differences in heart attack rates are of course well above the threshold for medical significance.
Our Need to Focus on Chronic Stress
As important and perhaps surprising as these findings are, it is essential to add that the principal problem with stress today is its chronic or ongoing forms rather than its intense or acute varieties. Protracted conditions of stress in us reliably lead to significant biochemical and immunological disruptions in our bodies and then progressive reductions in our health and natural functioning across our lives. A list of important consequences from unaddressed chronic stress is available at The Effects Of Chronic Stress.
If we adopt the idea that stress is a physical phenomenon, one with medical and health significance, and not only a psychological or attitudinal state, this implies that stress can be measured objectively and acted upon chemically. And this is indeed the case. Though far from the most adaptive or optimal long-term stress management strategy, we can take drugs that will literally, if temporarily and with undesirable side-effects, stop stress in its tracks.
The finding that stress is amenable to direct action lies behind the veritable stress management industry that exists today, offering to help us reduce, remove, and recycle our stress for personal and collective benefit. But since overall stress levels still appear to be increasing among people in and entering working life in the United States and other parts of the developed world, despite a generation of widely available stress management techniques, there is an obvious gap between our stress reduction needs and assistance programs and the stress reduction results we are achieving individually and collectively today.
Although current stress reduction efforts and techniques are laudable and can be part of a definitive strategy to reduce health and life-impairing stress, they have proven themselves insufficient to greatly or widely curtail stress on their own. For HumanaNatura, it is time that we reconsider the ways we think about and approach stress altogether, raising the bar on our goals for stress reduction and better addressing this critical modern natural health problem. Put simply, our proposal is that instead of simply managing stress, we need to re-focus on eliminating stress, at least in its chronic forms, if we are to appreciably change the current trajectory of stress and reduced natural health in modern society. Let’s then consider both why and how a relatively stress-free life should and can become our goal and personal norm.
Understanding the Physics of Stress
Since there is an enormous gap between our stress reduction needs and ongoing stress reality, with critical health and quality of life implications, let’s go for what may be a breakthrough in the way you approach stress in the next few minutes.
First, let’s start with a simple, useful, and scientifically accurate, but today still controversial definition of stress – stress is anything that invokes a significant activation of our sympathetic nervous system (the part of our brains and neuroanatomy responsible for natural “fight or flight” responses). In our subjective experience, when we perceive stress, it is usually a negative and anxiety-producing event of some kind (think of tailgating motorists or an antagonistic co-worker). But stress can also exist objectively in imperceptible or habituated forms, and we can have significant stress activations that we fail to perceive for one reason or another. Both forms of stress, detected and undetected, are usually of the all-important chronic variety.
The following chart summarizes common symptoms of stress, some of which are more obvious, others less so. But all are dangerous, and life and health-limiting, when they occur chronically and significantly.
Source/Click To Enlarge: Stress Signs & Symptoms
When we think about the chemistry and health effects of stress, our most important takeaway should be “a little can be good.” Of course, even a little stress needn’t be good, but sometimes it can be – say, when a specific stress activation helps us to respond to a grave and immediate threat, or to become more focused on significant life tasks. But other times, especially in the complex and extra-natural settings of modern life, even moderate stress activations can impede our personal creativity, problem solving ability, and overall performance in daily life. And when the stress we experience is more than a little – either severe or sustained at heightened levels – it can actively curtail our health and quality of life, as the heart attack risk study and other research into stress impacts remind us.
Three Good Reasons to Focus on Stress
Though a little stress can be helpful, significant and sustained stress deserves our attention for at least three reasons. First, as we pointed out, acute stress can cause us to act rashly and less than optimally, potentially increasing total stress levels, especially in modern situations that are not analogous to natural life or a good fit with the evolved stress responses we carry within us from our earlier development. Standing up to a lion or bully rather than running from them, for example, is a likely and generally healthy natural stress response. Doing the same when that bully has a gun and is demanding valuables, however, is probably less healthy but is still fairly likely when our sympathetic nervous system is suddenly and dramatically activated.
A second reason we need to address stress is that intense or protracted stress activations mean something is wrong, either in our environment or in how we are functioning – perceiving, thinking, feeling or acting – in it. When we have significant and ongoing stress, it is a sign that we likely are not in a natural and healthy harmony with the world, others, or ourselves. Many of us accept fairly high levels of personal stress, especially compared with our natural capacity to tolerate it, but this is almost always a mistake. Stress is a signal, telling us to respond, and is thus often is an indicator of a mismatch in our life. And though our stress signals are not perfect, when we fail to act thoughtfully and appropriately in the face of heightened stress, we often do so at our own peril.
This important idea of stress as information brings us to a third critical reason to focus on it. In addition to stress signaling a risk of heightened rashness and being a natural sign of personal or environmental imbalance, the various neurochemicals involved in stress activations, such as adrenaline, are not agents we want regularly circulating at elevated levels in our bodies if we can avoid it, due to their significant negative health effects when they are sustained in this manner. Such stress effects include elevated blood pressure, reduced immune functioning, metabolic and hormonal imbalances, compromised tissue quality and pre-mature aging, anxiety and excitability, and reduced cognitive functioning. Lots of reasons to take action on chronic stress!
A Natural Perspective on Stress
To put modern, chronically elevated stress in perspective and set up a discussion of what our optimal or natural stress management goals should be, let’s consider for a moment stress in pre-civilized, hunter-gatherer life – the setting in which we lived and evolved for millions of years. As you might imagine and as many studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers have shown, this life was marked by periodic but not chronic stress (excepting periods of ecological imbalance and hardship).
In earlier life, we normally had momentary stress during hunting or the defense of our native bands from aggressors, and perhaps slightly more protracted stress during periods of personal or social discord within our bands. Otherwise, life in nature at the top of the food chain was pretty enjoyable overall however, and earlier people appear to have typically lived without the chronic stress and disaffection we experience so frequently today, even as this natural life was much more perilous and shorter.
Our earlier patterns of human stress are important and prove enormously instructive in grounding our thinking about optimal forms and amounts of stress today. This model of natural human stress, in fact, correctly predicts that we are not well adapted for stress above this amount and will progressively succumb to sustained stress amid modern life.
Zero-Tolerance of Chronic Stress
With this health-critical idea in mind – that we did not normally experience chronic stress in nature and thus are not evolved to live with it today – we’d like to propose a fairly radical but personally transformative goal for your stress management efforts: you should aspire to live in a way where significant stress is not a regular part of your life and surroundings.
We know this goal may initially strike you as unrealistic, since many of us have become accustomed to the idea that ongoing stress and negative emotions and experiences are a necessary part of human life. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The fact is that we don’t have to live with ongoing stress – and ideally shouldn’t and realistically needn’t – in the modern world, if we are health-centered and focused on true quality of life.
We also know that most stress advice today involves reducing chronic stress rather than eliminating it. But as we have pointed out, these well-intended but ultimately too timid efforts are simply not working on a large-scale and producing the health learning and quality of life improvements that can come from the sustained elimination of chronic modern stress. With a status quo or piecemeal approach to stress, most of us will not address the causes of our stress and the enormous health opportunities waiting in systematically addressing these causes, and will continue to live amidst profound gaps between our health and quality of life reality and potential.
So, remembering that we are all still at the top of the food chain and now have wealth and technical capacities our ancestors could not have imagined, and keeping in mind that some of us already live in modern times without significant stress, we would urge you to make the idea of little or no recurring stress your goal!
HumanaNatura’s Natural Living Worksheets
Managing & Then Eliminating Stress
In practice, managing or wrestling chronic stress down to near-zero levels involves three progressive or increasing steps: 1) Learning to break away from nagging or overwhelming stress, 2) Getting perspective on our long-term stress by examining its causes, and 3) Altering our life in a progressively health-seeking or health-centered way until these causes are eliminated and our stress becomes not just managed, but largely absent or only episodic.
As suggested, modern stress experts have done a good job at devising strategies for the first step of breaking away from stress, but often ignore or fail to take on the more fundamental and health-critical second and third steps. They, like many of us, often assume that chronic stress is a natural part of life. But chronic stress wasn’t normally a part of earlier life and needn’t be today, in the developed world at least, as many relatively stress-free people remind us.
In the HumanaNatura natural health system, the goal of breaking away from stress underlies the practices within our Natural Eating and Natural Exercise techniques, which combine to encourage intentional self-care and health-focused time away from regular modern life. If you would like even more help in taking an immediate break from too much stress in your life, a great list of ideas is available at Stress Relievers.
Next comes the perhaps less urgent but ultimately more important steps of examining our stress and taking long-term actions to systematically make our chronic stress go away. Action on these steps can involve changing our outlook, changing our life, or both – and are in the domain of HumanaNatura health techniques of Natural Living and Natural Communities. Since the causes of chronic stress are common to us all but their solution can be far more individualized, we will offer general guidelines here, while encouraging you to take up the HumanaNatura challenge of a health-centered and stress-free modern life, using our natural health techniques to achieve this essential aspect and clear sign of a naturally healthy modern life.
If you are experiencing high or protracted stress, start by developing one or more healthy “stress break” techniques until they begin to give you real relief from the stress you feel and face. Start with a goal of an hour of relatively relaxed and worry-free time each day, whether via natural eating and exercise, time outside your regular environment, time with healthy friends, or use of the other healthy stress relievers we’ve provided. In this learning to break away from stress, you definitely should not rely on unhealthy and all-too-common modern stress escapes – including drugs, alcohol, and denial. As you improve your stress breaking capacity, next work to achieve at least two hours without stress each day and the ability to sleep the night without worry, again using healthy stress relief techniques.
When you are ready to go after greater perspective and take definitive long-term actions to eliminate your chronic stress, start with a list of 1) the five most stressful things in your life (the key triggers of our stress – these are usually fairly easy to identify), and 2) those things that ultimately or at bottom cause these triggers to be in your life in the first place (the root causes of our stress – this part can take time). You can begin this work on your own or with a friend, coach, or counselor. If you use a friend, pick one you trust and who has relatively low levels of stress already.
In this list-making, it is important to remember that the causes of chronic stress can be physical (an unsafe environment or over-committed life), interpersonal (ongoing or unaddressed conflict in key relationships), or psychological (the thinking and beliefs we bring to life). Many stress programs today focus on the psychological aspects of stress. While important, this approach greatly limits our potential range of stress reduction actions and leaves unaddressed our more essential need to pursue or create a modern natural life without unhealthy stress.
When your list of stress triggers and causes is reasonably complete, pick one item from your list (perhaps starting small) and create a plan to make the stress and underlying cause go away completely – as close to 100% as you can get. You may have to be creative in this process and should keep all options open, except those options that are likely to increase stress elsewhere in your life.
When you have acted to eliminate stress in this way, you will either have made progress or acquired new learning about your stress and life more broadly. In both cases, go through this process again as soon as possible – creating a new top five “stress triggers and causes” list and taking on one new item – and work to make the stress go away completely (and ideally quickly, in the interest of sustained health progress. Then, yes, repeat the process again, and again.
In this way, you can make significant and increasing strides toward new, stress-free, and far healthier modern living. Most importantly, don’t stop! Work steadily to change your life to eliminate chronic stress and use this goal to uncover new options for healthier and higher quality life for yourself and others. Use health-centered and largely stress-free living as a goal and means to new health and life. Use your stress as a measure or indicator of the overall health and quality of your life. Sustain and build on your gains, and you might soon be surprised at the life you can create for yourself, once you put your natural health first and let other things fall in line or to the side.
Learn More & Take Control
As we suggested, you likely can address all or the majority of your most important stress causes and health risks through HumanaNatura’s science-based health techniques – Natural Eating, Natural Exercise, Natural Living and Natural Communities. All four techniques are part of HumanaNatura’s comprehensive natural health system and are explained in detail in our complete and naturally individualized Personal Health Program. If you want to start by learning more about HumanaNatura and your key opportunities for transformed modern natural health and well-being, go to The Four HumanaNatura Techniques.
Beginning today, take on your chronic stress deliberately and definitively. Insist that it become and remain a small and infrequent part of your life, and work to make the critical HumanaNatura health goal of personal harmony your daily reality. If you do, you will have not just a better life, but very likely a much longer and healthier one too.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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