Stress Can Kill You

The object of this blog is weight control, living healthy, living long and living well. It’s under that last descriptor, living well, that I wanted to write about stress.

Who hasn’t heard the words “Stress’ll kill ya?” Who doubts those words? No one and no one. But who really understands what they mean? Very few of us.

How does stress kill/hurt you? I knew that under stress our bodies secreted adrenaline and I kind of thought that there must be some damage in too much of that shooting through our system. But, that was the extent of my understanding of stress and its impact on us.

I recently got an offer from The Great Courses for the course “Stress and Your Body.” It seemed a good time to find out more and who better to learn it from? I have written about The Great Courses previously as I love to take their courses.

Illustration from the cover of Stress and Your Body

The stress course is taught by Professor Robert Sapolsky, Ph.D., award winning teacher, author and winner of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant. He wrote Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: A Guide to Stress-Related Diseases and Coping (W.H. Freeman, 1995), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award.

Before going on further about the course, I want to include another excellent summary of how stress affects the body. This is by Dr. Susan Lark, MD on the Healthy Net site.

“Your emotional and physical reactions to stress are partly determined by the sensitivity of your sympathetic nervous system. This system produces the fight or flight reaction in response to stress and excitement, speeding up and heightening the pulse rate, respiration, muscle tension, glandular function, and circulation of the blood. If you have recurrent anxiety symptoms, either major or minor lifestyle and emotional upsets may cause an overreaction of your sympathetic system. If you have an especially stressful life, your sympathetic nervous system may always be poised to react to a crisis, putting you in a state of constant tension. In this mode, you tend to react to small stresses the same way you would react to real emergencies. The energy that accumulates in the body to meet this “emergency” must be discharged in order to bring your body back into balance. Repeated episodes of the fight or flight reaction deplete your energy reserves and, if they continue, cause a downward spiral that can lead to emotional burnout and eventually complete exhaustion. You can break this spiral only by learning to manage stress in a way that protects and even increases your energy level.”

I am about halfway through the course and I can attest that Professor Sapolsky is a gifted teacher and lecturer. He simplifies heavy medical terms and concepts so that the layman, me, never feels left behind.

So, how does stress damage us? The professor uses the excellent example of a zebra running for its life from a lion. The zebra’s stress response system diverts energy from storage sites to its muscles and inhibits unessential processes like digestion, reproduction and growth to allow it to flee.

What I got most from the first lecture was that the damage from stress doesn’t come to us from the shot of adrenaline, but from what is shut down. The zebra’s system has no need of digestion, reproduction and growth etc., because if it doesn’t escape it will be dead so it shuts down those functions.

If the zebra escapes, its systems come back on stream and the animal resumes its natural balance.

We humans don’t have to flee from lions, but we do face stress in our lives and when we feel it, the same kind of shutdown occurs.

Examples include traffic tie-ups that double commuting time, complicated home repairs, troublesome thoughts and recurring stressful memories, worries about the economy, or closer to home, our mortgage, our job, our boss.

The course explains how the chronic stress that so many of us face can turn the safety mechanism of the stress response into a real problem for our physical and mental well-being.

One lecture that is particularly relevant to us here is number 5. Stress, Overeating, and Your Digestive Tract “Focus now on the role stress plays in our gastrointestinal tracts. Why do most of us eat more during stressful periods? How does stress affect bowel disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and spastic colons? And how does stress combine with a bacterial infection to produce a common stress-related disease: ulcers?”

Other lectures that look especially useful were 6 Stress and Growth, 7 Stress, growth and child development, 8 Stress and Female reproduction and 9 Stress and Male reproduction.

I can’t teach the course here, but halfway through it, I have a seriously better understanding of how stress can hurt me. Being retired I have eliminated a great deal of the stress that is a part of everyday working life. I also know a little about relaxation and breathing.

The concluding few lectures which I haven’t heard yet deal with stress management and I will likely post info from them here.

One thing I have learned in my own experience is that worry is a valueless pursuit. I simply don’t spend time worrying. If I find myself worrying I stop. I either confront the situation and seek a solution, or put it out of my mind. There is nothing gained in spending time worrying.

At this point, at least we all have a better idea of how stress damages us.

One last element about The Great Courses. At some point in the year, each course will be on sale. You can ask them to alert you when a course in which you are interested will be offered at a sale price.



Filed under aging, life challenges, men and healthy eating, stress

9 responses to “Stress Can Kill You

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