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Stress Kills. FACT.

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

Removing as much stress or strain as possible is key to allowing your thinking and attitudes to change. This is obviously relevant to how you construct your new life health plan and so in the quest for improved health and wellbeing, managing stress is a crucial element.

Stress is part of life. There is no escaping it. In fact stress in moderate amounts and if handled properly is actually good for you. But, and it’s a big but, how you handle stress is the difference between life and death.


Mind-body medicine is not just a fancy name used by alternative or complimentary practitioners. It is not the unusual belief of eastern healers. It’s a very real thing and although only 40 years old and thus “new” in the western scientific world of basic biological research, psychoneuroimmunology (syco-nuro-immun-ology) is a fast growing scientific discipline. This area of investigation is demonstrating the basic processes by which “the mind” located in the the brain influences our physical health and sickness.

Stress is part of life. There is no escaping it. In fact stress in moderate amounts and if handled properly is actually good for you. But, and it’s a big but, how you handle stress is the difference between life and death.

To steal an engineering concept, stress produces strain. It’s not stress that kills you, it’s the strain that it places on the body and mind. The good news is that you can engineer your life in such a way that you can protect yourself against the strain just as engineers design a bridge to not only withstand the the day to day wear and tear of normal traffic over many years but also regular storms and the occasional hurricane.

You can learn simple skills and adopt some easy to learn habits that we know protect you against the physical, emotional and mental damage of stress. The key ones are of course, a healthy diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep and self- reflection, prayer or meditation.

Questions concerning your perceived stress levels along with enquiry into common stressors need to be part of every medical doctor or health care providers basic assessment when they meet you. There is a large and growing body of mainstream scientific evidence demonstrating that an individual’s psychological makeup, which plays a significant role in how they handle the stress of life, has very real consequences for their general wellbeing, health and lifespan.

Stress affects whether you become ill and what happens if you do. Stress affects how you heal from injury and operations. If your healthcare team does not ask you about stress in your former and current life they are missing a vital part of your story.

Stress is anything that causes the body or mind to be pushed out of their comfort zones. It can be in the form of emotional stress; loss of a loved one, break up of a relationships, bullying at work or school, being rejected by people around you, or by society in general because you are different. It can be psychological stress, too many hours at work, not enough money to pay the bills, the pressure of meeting a deadline or passing an exam, perhaps trying to solve a problem that you think you don’t have the knowledge to fix. It can also be caused by the way you think about yourself and the world around you. Stress can be physical, an illness or infection, perhaps a broken bone or injury, too much exercise, a marathon, insufficient sleep or a lack of a quality sleep.

All stress causes activation of our fight-flight reaction. This is a single solution to danger in our lives and our neuro-immune and neuro-endocrine systems do not differentiate the cause. So physical, emotional, and psychological stress cause the same internal responses. Stress can be acute and short lived, running a marathon, or chronic such as in a bad long term relationship, a difficult job, commitment to a loved one as a long-term carer, or perhaps coping with your own chronic illness. Lastly and most importantly stress is a physical event in the body as much as it is a mental one. It is critical that you understand this because it explains why stress produces physical changes in the body as well as the mind.

Our Stress Response

The stress response is normal in acute situations, but long term activation can be immensely damaging to our health. This process is driven through two main systems in the body, the autonomic nervous system, in this case the sympathetic branch, and neuro-endocrine system which operates through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. These two responses are connected and overlap but they work quite differently. Both lead to profound changes in the neuro-immune system.

The acute stress reaction is the one intended to protect you from immediate harm. There are three common responses, fright or freeze, fight and flight. It is entirely automatic and is driven by the sympathetic nervous system. It is the adrenalin reaction. You feel anxious, your pupils dilate, your heart rate goes up, your muscles tighten ready for action and your gut shuts down. This process should be short lived and lasts for about 20 minutes, then your adrenalin runs out. If there is no tiger about to eat you or someone trying to stab you and it occurs whilst having a cup of tea with your friend we call it a panic attack. It’s the feeling you get when you have a “near miss” in a car or someone frightens you. This whole reaction is lightening quick and totally outside your control, at least in the initial stages. You have a feeling of impending doom and you are driven to act instantly.

The chronic stress reaction is a little different. This reaction is slower and comes next. It is a both a neuro-immune and neuro-endocrine response involving nerves, immune cells and hormones. The most important hormone being Cortisol. It is organised from the hypothalamus, the part of your brain that connects your nervous system to many of your hormone producing glands. The hypothalamus which is part of the primitive brain called the limbic system, is connected to many areas of your brain. The limbic system is where our brain stores memories and is the root of emotions. It connects with the autonomic nervous system, sympathetic (fright, fight, flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). It also connects with the reasoning part of our brain, the cortex. So this area is like the centre of a bicycle wheel with many spokes leading to and from it. It connects to the body’s hormone system through a small gland called the pituitary. This structure sits beneath the hypothalamus behind our eyes. It produces chemical messengers that tell your adrenal and thyroid glands how much cortisol and thyroid hormones to make. It instructs the sex glands, testes and ovaries. It also produces prolactin, another stress hormone which also stimulates milk production in breast feeding mothers.

A second area, the pineal gland which produces the hormone Melatonin, is found in the centre of the brain. It also connects the nervous system to the hormone system. Melatonin which you will know as the master sleep modulator, has a significant effect on many aspects of your health in part because of its direct action on immune cell function and the neuro-immune system as a whole..

All our other glands and hormone producing tissues are connected to the brain through sympathetic and parasympathetic system nerves. All of the above are linked to the immune system and its many specialist cells and glands through several neuro-immune connections.

All these so called different parts of our body act as one. Each cell in your body is constantly talking with all the other cells in your body. The “barriers” between systems are constructs of scientists who tend to study jigsaw puzzle pieces, but all the separate pieces are parts of the same jigsaw picture. You have to think of the body as a super-organism made of many individual cells and components working together. It is not a collection of separate compartments.

I think it is true to say that we all recognise that stress is bad for us. What most people don't realise is how bad it is. Have no illusion, stress is a killer. Over the last decade or so we have figured out why.

We have known for many years that your risk of developing cancer, or having a heart attack is much increased after a period of acute stress. Recent divorce or separation, loss of a loved one, losing your job are all associated with increased disease. Think of the word itself dis-ease, lack of ease.

Chronic stress is equally damaging. Just about every known disease, infectious or non-infectious is commoner in individuals who are chronically stressed. We also know that stress in your childhood and even during your time in the womb has a profound effect on the rest of your life, increasing your risk of developing ill health and an early death.

For a long time we did not know why but now we do.

It all comes back to the neuro-immune system, the neuro-endocrine system and the process they control, chronic inflammation. We understand the way acute and chronic stress leads to increased inflammation, and as discussed elsewhere we know that inflammation is the cause both mental and physical disease, premature ageing and early death.

Chronic stress is also associated with significant changes in the way that our brain works. It affects memory and our ability to manipulate new ideas. In other words it prevents us from learning. At a very fundamental level stress is one of the significant barriers to change.

We also know that both acute and chronic stress are associated with a significantly increased risk of anxiety and depression.

Removing as much stress or strain as possible is key to allowing your thinking and attitudes to change. This is obviously relevant to how you construct your new life health plan and so in the quest for improved health and wellbeing, managing stress is a crucial element.

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