Welcome to part two of my email-interview with Culpeper’s own Dr. Joan Vernikos. This month’s Wellness and Wellbeing segment began last week as she shared her research, both from earth and space to encourage us to move. This week, it’s all about what she calls “the juice of life”. Stress.
As Joan explained it, stress is as much a part of us as breathing. It is a stimulus we need to energize us. But when there’s too much, it is the most pernicious cause of illness and pain, making every health condition worse, ultimately leading to early death. Yet stress is also our defense mechanism and our source of Energy.
The key, as Joan explained, is to learn how to use stress, but not be abused by it. Build a relationship with stress. Dance with it.
Despite what we may think, stress is not the distress, or the anxiety, or the worry. Instead, stress is what causes you to feel what you feel.
Everyone’s stress is different:
Getting out of bed in the morning
Standing up from a chair
Frequent interruptions throughout your workday
Difficulty losing weight
A child or relative needing your care
Juggling competing demands
As Joan explained, these stressors are no different than the stress our caveman ancestors experienced running away from a tiger, escaping up a tree, defending the cave, hunting for food, or finding shelter. We have the same genes, the same physiological systems and the same responses. But rarely these days, except in the battlefield or in environmental disasters, is our stress a matter of survival. Nevertheless, whatever today’s stress might be, it is still perceived as a threat to survival.
That is when we might notice the effects of our stress:
Difficulty remembering names with faces
Irritability or increased feelings of anger
waking up in the middle of the night with worry
Feeling lonely even when surrounded by friends and family
Less interest in sex
Joan suggested that no matter the nature of the stress, our response will be the same. Magnitude is the only difference, based on our perception of the stress. Our perception, as she put it, is often driven by “our database of past experiences – how effectively we dealt with them in the past”. This determines how big our response will be.
Joan explained that the stress response is for the sake of survival. The pouring out of the hormones Cortisol and Adrenaline are in support of the body and brain at a time of crisis. Well-managed stress allows the body to shut off the stress response, knowing that the threat is over. But excessive stress is unmanaged and dangerous due to the uncontrolled outpouring of these hormones. Joan referred to this as ‘burnout’, as it leads to the breakdown of any tissue it can find – muscle, bone, skin, joint, heart, immune cells, brain connections, and memory cells.
An intelligent relationship with stress, as Joan described, is informed by the knowledge that most stress is self-made. Approximately 80% of stress is related to what might happen in the future, past events that cannot be changed, or, irritations in the moment over which you have no control. Joan suggested these as opportunities to hit DELETE, or at least PAUSE the stress. Simply put, take a few breaths, analyze, relax, meditate.
Stepping back, even for a moment can allow the body to recover. Then you may have the time and space to manage your stressful situation. In Joan’s words, “stress is about challenge and change”.
Stress is a dance. “Learn to sway”.