Reprogram Your Genes For Health, Happiness And Vitality
Part 4: Build Resilience To Stress
Our stress response has been finely honed over millions of years to cope with a range of survival threats, but in many cases it is inappropriate for the modern world.
Many people are familiar with our flight or flight response, which is driven by our sympathetic nervous system and the hormone adrenaline. This is a very fast acting response that mobilises energy, dumps blood sugar into the bloodstream, and diverts blood to the muscles to enable us to deal with the three minutes of screaming terror of being chased by a lion on the African Savannah. By running away or fighting, we burn up those stress hormones and our body returns to equilibrium.
Nowadays, however, lions have been replaced with chronic low-level stressors of living, such as traffic, work deadlines, relationships issues, money worries, etc. The result is that our stress response system stays switched on. When stress persists, another system kicks in – the HPA axis. This slower-acting system involves a number of hormones, but ultimately ends up with cortisol being released from the adrenal glands.
To simplify things, think lions for the flight or fight system, and famine for the HPA axis – one of the impacts of chronic cortisol release is that it suppresses our metabolic rate, and encourages us to store fat (especially the dangerous fat around our midsection).
Figure 1 shows what I call ‘the stress cycle’. The first two elements (perception and coping strategy) are largely within our control, so put your focus here to deal with stress. It’s crucial to understand that we are the only species whose thoughts can activate our stress response systems, so if you are having negative thoughts or think something is stressful, it will be.
This is where ‘the catastrophe scale’ comes in, as it is very effective at changing our perception. Think of what would be close to a 10 in terms of stress, such as your whole family being killed in front of you. With this scale an 8 might be having your house burn down and a 5 or 6 breaking a leg. When we think of it in these terms, most of us get upset about what I call ‘First World Problems’.
Having effective coping strategies also stops stress from impacting on our sleep and subsequently our metabolism (poor sleep quality raises the hunger hormone ghrelin, levels of damaging inflammation and cortisol – making us more stressed the next day).
Exercise is great, as it burns up stress hormones, which is why I’m a fan of sprinting on the spot for 30 seconds, or running up a few flights of stairs several times a day. Likewise, hitting the gym at the end of a stressful day is very effective for stress management, as are other strategies such as meditation, yoga, Tai Chi or deep breathing.
Click the links below to read the previously published articles in this series: