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  • Catherine Florio Pipas

Stress: The amazing process that both keeps us alive and can destroys us

Stress is our body’s reaction to danger- whether real or perceived. It is a complex chemical response to protect us and keep us from harm’s way.

Each of our bodies are designed to survive! When threatened – for example under attack by a wild animal, in a major accident, or caught in a fire, chemicals like cortisol and epinephrine are turned on and activate the “fight or flight response”. In simple words, this response causes us a feeling of anxiety, agitation, readiness to run and hide, a racing heart, dry mouth, nausea, sweating and an overall unsettled experience.

Stress that turns on certain body functions; it also turns off others. High energy is needed in stressful situations and that is directed to muscle mass and focus. Stress can be valuable in such acute situations, as it increases our ability to focus on one thing and perform under taxing conditions- like preparing for exams, handling emergencies, or preforming on an interview. But while preparing for “fight or flight”, our bodies simultaneously turn off non-essential functions such as digestion, creativity, innovative thinking, and immune system responses. Higher level cognitive functioning is also diminished under stress, and learning is reduced.

Chronic stress –limits our ability to thrive. Chronic stress may be ongoing acute stress, like a prolonged traumatic or adverse event -such as war or famine, but often it is a perceived danger that comes with excessive workload, lack of time, control or resources. It can also be a result of our fears of inadequacy: not doing enough, not being enough, not having enough. In all of these situations our bodies wear down.

The effect of chronic stress on our bodies and minds is analogous to leaving google maps or GPS running on our phones 24/7. Our battery runs out and like the phone we need to be recharged - our physical and mental energies need to be replenished. If we don’t recharge we will burnout!

Many respond to stress by disengaging or dulling the feeling s of anxiety with alcohol or drugs. These negative coping mechanisms may alleviate tension temporarily but have negative consequences on our short term and long-term physical, mental and social wellbeing.

Evidence based healthy strategies to sustain wellness in the face of stress are emerging. I have highlighted 12 of these in A Doctor’s Dozen. While I am always challenging myself to apply them, there are some I do well and others, with which I will continuously struggle. Like Ben Franklin who highlighted in his lifelong efforts to achieve his 13 virtues of health and happiness, “I will never be perfect, but I can always improve.”

Catherine Florio Pipas November 2018

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