I think we can all agree that stress is at the root of most chronic illness. As a full time clinician and as a patient with an auto-immune condition, I am absolutely certain that stress is the most significant and powerful force in making any disease worse. The opposite is also true; by getting enough sleep, learning how to relax deeply and getting enough rest; you have a much greater chance of improving your health. Of course, avoiding stimulants and intoxicants while eating abundant nutrient dense food will go a long way in helping feel your best as well.
Stress is a tricky and sometimes dangerous part of life. Many of the stressful challenges we face usually started with a sense of excitement, purpose and meaning. All too often these, once a great opportunity can become challenges. Challenges that can become a daily grind of hoop jumping and damage control. What really happens, for most of us, is we stop feeling the signals from our body. And that is very, very dangerous!
You have probably heard of the expression “butterflies in your stomach”? I remember as a child, going to the dentist for the first time. I am sure that my butterflies were more likely to be Pterodactyls with machine guns. The feeling in my abdomen was so intense that I remember running to the bathroom, over and over again. Maybe I was hoping to get the butterflies out, one way or the other. That may seem strangely personal, but I have asked a lot of people about this sensation and most of them have described the same thing – especially when they were children.
From a clinical perspective, the sensation we call “butterflies in your stomach” is actually the sensation that occurs when a great deal of the blood that normally resides in your abdomen gets forced into your muscles in preparation for the fight or flight response. If you have never heard of this give yourself a minute to scan your body and look for any place of nervous tension. If you completely clear of butterflies you probably don’t need to read this. If you found some nervous tension anywhere in your body then you really need to read this. To recap; something stressful happens, your body goes on fight or flight mode and suddenly your stomach and intestines are trying to function without enough blood to do their jobs properly. And here come the bigger butterflies. Unfortunately, most of us just stop feeling twenty butterflies, then thirty, then forty and so on…
When there is insufficient blood around your gastrointestinal system you cannot absorb nutrients very well, your mucous membrane has a harder time repairing itself and the greater part of your immune system is going to be taxed. Recent research has shown that over 75% of your immune system surrounds your gut, protecting you from any toxins or parasites in your food, as well as the hundreds of naturally occurring microbacteria that live in your gut. Your mucous membrane is HUGE. If you were to stretch it out with respect to interaction with your food it is the size of a tennis court. Normally, this entire structure has to be replaced every four days, and without sufficient nutritional support from your blood it cannot repair itself in time. It is no surprise that two of the most common things adults suffer from in the developed world are Ulcers and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Hmmm…
I remember when I was in university, when I would visit some friends in their dorm rooms the smells were often pretty, well…. Ummmmm, HORRIBLE!
Imagine you are going to university, you have tons of projects and exams and you decide it is easier to shove your dirty socks under your bed than wash them. Laundry is time consuming after all. If you find that image intolerable, imagine that one of your friends has made the same sock storing decision. Over time, whoever is sleeping over a pile of smelly socks can no longer smell them. An adaptation that goes back a few million years; if it seems dangerous but never causes your harm – IGNORE IT! After all, as far as evolution is concerned, there are all kinds of new dangers to face every day.
Now imagine that your parents (or their parents) come over for a visit. Mom and Dad come into the room and try to smile as the tears of revulsion begin to drip from their eyes. Hands come to mouths, grunts of disgust ensue and they bolt from the room.
The tricky part about the symptoms of gradual and chronic disease is that we can learn to not feel them. The most dangerous thing about stress, low grade food allergies, physical tension, poor sleep, volume of worry, depth of sadness and the dissatisfaction of boredom and discontent is that they start to feel normal. As they try and get our attention with more intensity we shove them under the bed of our busy, busy lives.
Stress has been said to contribute to 80% of the processes involved in all chronic, degenerative and autoimmune disease. And 80% is almost an A in most schools.
If you are suffering from chronic stress, any diagnosable disease and feel that what I have written applies to you, then it is time to do some laundry. Each of us, myself included, have to clean house in some way. I encourage you to take some time and re-evaluate what you value on your life. I am not suggesting that you or anyone is wrong about what we value, I am just aware that a good reset is in order every once in a while. I also encourage you to find ways to relax and really enjoy yourself.
I have three ways that I use my computer to relax. I would advise anyone to spend as much time moving as they do sitting every day, but you are most likely sitting in front of a screen as you read this. So, let’s start with chill and thrill time with a screen. I love playlists on YouTube. I have playlists of music I like to play and sing along with that, after even 30 minutes make me feel a lot better. My second “go to” playlist is stand-up comedians. An hour of laughing my ass off always improves my outlook on everything. When I need to find some inspiration and motivation, I choose philosophers, spiritual teachers, researchers and motivational speakers to inspire me about what brings meaning into my life. Ted talk anyone?
Even better than sitting in front of a screen is to get some exercise. Walk, jog, run, bike swim, play a sport, take up Yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong (Chi Kung), learn to dance the tango or just do your chores with more bodily awareness and fun!
If you feel too tired to get more physical, then get more deeply involved in regular and deep relaxation. I have seen many people turn their health around by lying down for 30 minutes every day as soon as they get home from work or school. This simple choice is actually the most effective thing you can do bring the blood back to your digestive system and allow your butterflies to go back to sleep.
I hope this gives you a humorous perspective on a serious health issue.
I am interested in your questions and comments.