Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Stress: It's So Physical - a physical response helps - the sooner the better

We are so physical. Even our emotions have chemical physical effects. i did a post awhile ago about the physchem of stress and how doing physical things to knock off the fight or flight chemicals that are better know as a stress response. These responses are appropriate to deal with immanent threat/stress, like nervousness about a meeting; fear of giving a talk; anger at an exchange. Some simple physical responses from walking to breathing can be all we need to get back to normal. These simple, practical physical approaches let us clear out these chemicals as soon as possible so that we don't end up pretty literally stewing in our own hormonally triggered juices.

There's a super book called Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers that looks further at stress in terms of what happens when it doesn't get cleared out; when it builds over time - in other words what happens physiologically when we live in a physiologically stressed space.

The consequences, according to Sapolsky, are grim. Here's why. When that hormonal cascade turns on as a stress/threat response, some critical systems are turned off. Energy that goes into bone building, growth, the immune system, digestion, all gets shut down.

Sapolsky points out that this is totally appropriate for the short term shut down of a few minutes to a few hours these responses are designed to support to "get away from the lion." The problem with ongoing stress is that these systems STAY shut down or compromised for far longer periods. And that leads to disease and earlier mortality.

Sapolsky's work shows that there are particular strategies - modelled in the animal kingdom - that demonstrate the consequences of stress, and the effective, consistent, cross mamal species activities that demonstate reducing stress - and not getting ulcers.

To get a flavour of Sapolsky's amazing work, there are at least two audiobook lectures at iTunes U on the work from Zebras on stress. The first is Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers; the second is Stress and Coping: What Baboons can Teach Us. These are both free, and part of Stanford's Healthy Living Series at iTunes U. The take aways from Baboons are perhaps no surprise, but that they are so well underlined with both observation and physiology is well worth exploring.

In future posts, we'll be looking at strategies related to identifying fatiuge, too, to help optimize our own human performance for well being.

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