Transforming Suffering

No storm lasts forever

Today's Saber Tooth Tiger

The "fight or flight" response to stress has gone terribly awry.

“Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” ~ Robert Albert Bloch

 In the western world, stress and its related adverse effects have reached epidemic proportions. Over 60% of outpatient visits to physician offices are due to stress related ailments. Well over 1 billion dollars per year go toward stress-related medical costs. Increased health insurance premiums, decreased productivity, absenteeism and mistakes made in the workplace result in added costs to industry which now exceeds 150 billion dollars per year.

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Stress is a silent killer. It is a major contributor to the development of diseases that can lead to disability and even to death. While not always a direct cause, often stress is an exacerbating factor in the progression of disease. It has been tied to practically every major known illness.

In America, coronary artery disease is the number one killer. This is generally a result of plaque build-up within the lumen of an artery. Heightened stress has been reported to cause inflammation of the arteries supplying the heart that can result in heart attacks. It is a well-known fact that there is a greater chance of having a heart attack at 4:00 am on Monday morning than any other time or day of the week. This is likely related to the stress associated with beginning a new workweek. Stress can also cause the coronary arteries to spasm, resulting in acute closure of the vessel, which can result in a heart attack and/or death.

Stress affects the body in many other ways as well. Perhaps the most significant adverse affect is on the endocrine system. When stress is perceived, the brain responds through stimulation of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, which allows us to rise to the occasion, responding more efficiently to a perceived external threat. When this happens, the immune system is placed in a state of hibernation in order to conserve and redirect its energy toward the external threat. As a result, all activity related to combating internal illness is put on hold.

This response of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis involves the automatic release into the bloodstream of stress hormones like adrenaline. They are typically referred to as the “fight of flight” secretions. They are the body’s primitive response that initiates a sequence of stimulated nerve fiber firing which prepares our body for either fighting or escaping.

The physiological response is that our heart rate accelerates, as does our respiratory rate. Blood is directed away from our digestive tract and other vital organs, being shunted toward our muscles and limbs in order to provide them the needed energy to fight or run.

When the stress hormones are released, the tendency is to falsely perceive everyone and everything as a possible threat; attack mode kicks in. Rational thought become muted and distorted, replaced by exaggerated fear.

As humans, we share a similar acute response with our counterparts in the animal kingdom to perceived danger. While it may not be a vicious saber tooth tiger licking its chops and closing in for the kill, there are many figurative “saber tooth tigers” looming in our minds. Some of these include the fear of terrorist attacks, the faltering economy, relationships gone bad, work-related stress, the unsettling power of Mother Nature gone awry or simply the fear of the unknown.

While our short-term response mirrors that of the animal kingdom, our long-term responses differ dramatically!

Consider an impala grazing in an open field. A lion stealthily approaches it and bolts into the chase. The impala sensing danger is immediately infused with an adrenaline surge enabling it to out-maneuver and ultimately to outrun its attacker. Once the lion has given up the pursuit, with the effects of adrenaline now gone, the impala returns to its normal state of calmness; its “fight or flight response” lingers only as long as the external threat exists. Its HPA axis one again becomes dormant.

For human beings, it is quite a different scenario. We have “evolved” to the point of counter productive self-destruction. Unlike the animal kingdom, humans allow the minds to consciously conjure up stress in the form of worrying thoughts. This constant barrage of chaotic thoughts results in a state of perpetual HPA axis stimulation. Adrenaline activation was not meant to be continuous. The adrenal glands can no more maintain this near constant production of stress hormones than our bodies can physically handle their constant barrage of deleterious effects. The result of this sustained activation ends up have terrible effects on our Autonomic Nervous System resulting in hypertension, strokes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, fatigue, depression, Rheumatoid Arthritis and many other afflictions just to name a few.

One of the problems for us as humans lies often in our inability to fight or flee our “saber tooth tiger”. Due to socialization, we are forced to live with it, to interact with it, to deal with it. It’s not politically correct, nor would it be productive to take a swing at your boss when she denigrates you for poor work performance. The detrimental effects of not being able to resolve the danger, perceived or not, has long-lasting effects on us emotionally, psychologically and spiritually as well.

Several years ago, while experiencing a prolonged and very stressful time in my life, I received a phone call from my urologist. He informed me that my biopsies had come back positive for Prostate Cancer. My response to that shocking news was a feeling of chagrin. I felt like a little boy who had just gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar!

Similar to Lance Armstrong who had to have known he would eventually get caught in his lies, I also knew it was only a matter of time until the stress I had allowed to consume me, my saber tooth tiger, would catch up with me, rearing its ugly head in the form of dis-ease. My immune system had been in the off position, in hibernation far too long. This allowed the cancer cells within my prostate gland to begin multiplying and expanding, unimpeded by my immune system’s normally protective mechanisms.

I had already appreciated the significant imbalance in my life; my soul had become buried, overpowered by the destructive nature of the perceived stress that had its tentacles wrapped around me. By giving it credence and time, my unhappiness had been nurtured and kept alive.

I recognized the incessant mental chaos percolating through my mind. I knew it was preventing me from finding inner peace and now it was affecting my health as well! The first step I had to take was to liberate my consciousness of those destructive thought forms that had enslaved my mind. Once unshackled from them, I began seeing with clarity how destructive they had been.

Mark Twain once said: “I've had thousands of problems in my life, most of them never actually happened.”

A truer statement has never been made. The mind is capable of many levels of activity that can span the full gamut, from utter chaos and hyperactivity to tranquil meditation. By choosing the path of peaceful thoughts, all the negatives eventually disappear. After all, it only takes a tiny ray of light to eradicate the darkest clouds of despair. By ignoring the negative, it ends up vanishing, unable to survive without attention, its main nutriment, being paid to it.

The challenge becomes, how does one connect with that peace? How does one quiet the mind?

There are many techniques that enable us to elicit a beneficial relaxation response. My favorite technique involves Transcendental Meditation, where a mantra is repeated over and over again. Through focusing on the phrase, serenity gently ensues. Whenever the mind begins to wander as it often does initially, refocusing on the mantra brings me back to that place of peace.

The practice of yoga, praying, walking in nature while listening to its sounds, chanting, focused breathing and exercising all take me to a place of unfathomable peace. But like anything else that is worthwhile, it takes practice. It requires mindfulness as well. By placing attention on the positive, beautiful, and peaceful things in our lives, we can be guided to magnificent harmony.

 

Cardiologist Terry Gordon, DO, FACC, is the author of No Storm Lasts Forever.

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