By Dr. Mercola
The connections between stress and physical health are being explored at greater frequency these days. For example, recent news items have reported the links between emotional distress and physical pain,1 chronic inflammation2 and even stillbirths.3
In fact, pregnant women who experience significant stress in the months prior to, or during pregnancy are more likely to deliver stillborn babies. The risk is heightened with each stressful event, such as moving, losing a job, or the death of a friend or family member.
Previous studies have linked stress to lowered immune system function; increased blood pressure and cholesterol levels; altered brain chemistry, blood sugar levels and hormonal balance. It has also been found to increase the rate at which tumors grow.4
In a poll, work was identified as the number one source of stress in people’s lives.
Clearly, it is not possible or even recommended to eliminate stress entirely. However you can work to provide your body with tools to compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting that can cause serious disruption in many of your body's important systems.
By using techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), you can reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and meditation are also important “release valves” that can help you manage your stress.
How Stress Causes Disease
When you're stressed, your body releases stress hormones like cortisol, which prepare your body to fight or flee the stressful event. Your heart rate increases, your lungs take in more oxygen, your blood flow increases and parts of your immune system become temporarily suppressed, which reduces your inflammatory response to pathogens and other foreign invaders.
When stress becomes chronic, however, your immune system becomes less sensitive to cortisol, and since inflammation is partly regulated by this hormone, this decreased sensitivity heightens the inflammatory response and allows inflammation to get out of control.
This is in large part how stress “predisposes” you to getting sick in the first place. And, in the event you do get sick, emotional stressors can make your symptoms worse. Because inflammation plays a role in most diseases, including cardiovascular disease, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.
Links Explored Between Physical and Emotional Pain Relief
According to two recent studies from the Association for Psychological Science, physical pain may be a natural mechanism to help you regulate your emotions. This concept was explored by investigating a phenomenon known as “pain offset relief,” in which you experience the emotion of relief when the physical pain is removed.
In the first study,5 the researchers recorded participants’ emotions via electrodes in response to loud noises delivered either alone or seconds after receiving a low- or high-intensity electric shock. After pain offset, participants showed increased positive emotions and decreased negative emotions. The greater the pain (i.e. intensity of the shock), the greater the increase in positive emotions once the pain stopped. According to the authors, these findings shed light on the emotional nature of pain offset relief.
However, while the authors speculated that this might help us understand why some people seek relief through self-injurious behavior, a second study6 refuted the idea that those who harm themselves in an effort to experience relief do so because they experience greater levels of relief once the pain is removed than others. According to the featured article:7
“Surprisingly, healthy individuals displayed pain offset relief levels that were comparable to those of individuals with a history of self-harm, and there was no correlation between pain offset relief and self-harm frequency. These results do not support the hypothesis that heightened pain offset relief is a risk factor for future self-injury. Instead... the biggest risk factors for nonsuicidal self-injury may concern how some people overcome the instinctive barriers that keep most people from inflicting self-harm.”
Dwelling on Stressful Events Can Increase Inflammation in Your Body
Related research presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychosomatic Society in Miami, Florida, found that ruminating on a stressful incident can increase your levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in your body.8 It was the first study to directly measure this effect.
To do so, they asked 34 healthy young women to give a speech about her candidacy for a job in front of two stone-faced interviewers wearing white lab coats. Afterward, half the group was asked to contemplate their performance while the other half were asked to think about neutral things like going to the grocery store. Blood samples were drawn from each participant, showing that the C-reactive protein levels were significantly higher in those who kept ruminating on their speech. According to Medical News Today:9
“For these participants, the levels of the inflammatory marker continued to rise for at least one hour after the speech. During the same time period, the marker returned to starting levels in the subjects who had been asked to focus on other thoughts.
The C-reactive protein is primarily produced by the liver as part of the immune system's initial inflammatory response. It rises in response to traumas, injuries or infections in the body, [lead author, Peggy] Zoccola explained. C-reative protein is widely used as a clinical marker to determine if a patient has an infection, but also if he or she may be at risk for disease later in life. 'More and more, chronic inflammation is being associated with various disorders and conditions,' Zoccola said. 'The immune system plays an important role in various cardiovascular disorders such as heart disease, as well as cancer, dementia and autoimmune diseases.'"
Work is the Primary Cause of Stress in People's Lives
So what’s keeping your mind running in circles? According to a recent survey of more than 2,000 people, work topped the list as the most stressful factor in people's lives.
- 34 percent of respondents reported that their work life was either “very” or “quite” stressful
- 30 percent cited debt or financial problems as the most stressful factor, and
- 17 percent cited health problems as their main source of stress
Workplace stress resulted in seven percent of adults having suicidal thoughts. That figure was even higher among 18-24-year olds — as many as 10 percent in this age group have had suicidal thoughts as a result of work stress. One in five people also reported developing anxiety due to work-related stresses, and even more disturbingly, nearly 60 percent reported using alcohol after work to cope. Fourteen percent also said they drank during the work day to deal with the pressure!
Other destructive coping mechanisms cited included:
- Smoking (28 percent)
- Taking antidepressants (15 percent)
- Over-the-counter and prescription sleeping pills (16 and 10 percent respectively)
The cost associated with all this stress goes beyond that of an individual’s health. It’s also costly to employers. Stress-related health expenses, productivity losses and the costs associated with high employee turnover rates is currently costing American companies an estimated $360 billion each year.10 And while more than half of managers (56 percent) polled said they’d like to do more to improve the mental health of their staff, they said they needed more training, and 46 percent said mental health was not a priority in their organization so they couldn’t do anything about it even though they wanted to.
For examples on how you can increase wellness at work, whether you’re an employee or a manager, please see my recent article "Why Wellness in the Workplace Matters." Chief Executive of Mind, Paul Farmer told Medical News Today:11
"Work related mental health problems are an issue too important for businesses to ignore. Our research shows that employees are still experiencing high levels of stress at work, which is negatively impacting their physical and mental health. We know that right now, one in six workers is experiencing depression, stress or anxiety and yet our survey tells us that most managers don't feel they have had enough training or guidance to support them.
Improving mental well being in the workplace doesn't have to cost a lot. Our research shows that people whose organizations offered flexible working hours and generous annual leave said such measures supported their mental well being. Three in five people said that if their employer took action to support the mental well being of all staff, they would feel more loyal, motivated, committed and be likely to recommend their workplace as a good place to work."
EFT — Your Best Defense Against Anxiety and Stress
Even the conservative Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 85 percent of all disease has an emotional element. Stress and anxiety are two prevalent reasons why many people acquire health problems ranging from ulcers to sleeping problems to depression and more serious chronic ailments.
Many, if not most people carry emotional scars -- traumas that can adversely affect your health. Chronic stress is akin to emotional scarring, and causes ongoing damage to your cells. According to cellular biologist Dr. Bruce Lipton, the true secret to life does not lie within your DNA, but rather within the mechanisms of your cell membrane. Each cell membrane has receptors that pick up various environmental signals — which includes your thoughts and emotional state — and this mechanism controls the "reading" of the genes inside your cells. Your cells can choose to read or not read the genetic blueprint depending on the signals being received from the environment. This is what is now known as epigenetic control, i.e. the environment within your body — including your emotional terrain — controls your genetic expression, not the other way around.
Using techniques like energy psychology, you can correct the emotional short circuiting that contributes to your chronic stress. My favorite technique for this is the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is the largest and most popular version of energy psychology.
EFT was developed in the 1990s by Gary Craig, a Stanford engineering graduate specializing in healing and self-improvement. It’s akin to acupuncture, which is based on the concept that a vital energy flows through your body along invisible pathways known as meridians. EFT stimulates different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips, while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations. This can be done alone or under the supervision of a qualified therapist.12 By doing so, you help your body eliminate emotional “scarring” and reprogram the way your body responds to emotional stressors. Since these stressors are usually connected to physical problems, many people’s diseases and other symptoms can improve or disappear as well.
For a demonstration of how to perform EFT, please see the following video featuring EFT practitioner Julie Schiffman. The first video is a general demonstration, which can be tailored to just about any problem, and the second demonstrates how to tap for depression. While this technique is particularly effective for relieving emotional or mental stress and anxiety, it can be used for all manner of physical pain relief as well.
Total Video Length: 29:22
While the video above will easily teach you how to do EFT, it is VERY important to realize that self-treatment for serious issues is NOT recommended. It can be dangerous because it will allow you to falsely conclude that EFT does not work when nothing could be further from the truth. For serious or complex issues, you need someone to guide you through the process as there is an incredible art to this process and it typically takes years of training to develop the skill to tap on deep-seated, significant issues.
For Optimal Health, Take Stress Management Seriously
As much as you may try to ignore it, you cannot separate your wellness from your emotions. Every feeling you have affects some part of your body, and stress can wreak havoc on your physical health even if you’re doing everything else “right.”
The classic definition of stress is “any real or imagined threat, and your body’s response to it.” Celebrations and tragedies alike can cause a stress response in your body. All of your feelings, positive or negative, create physiological changes. Your skin, heart rate, digestion, joints, muscle energy levels, the hair on your head, and countless cells and systems you don't even know about change with every emotion.
You cannot eliminate stress entirely, but there are tools available to help your body compensate for the bioelectrical short-circuiting caused by stress that is the root of so much illness and poor health. Exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and meditation are also important “release valves” that can help you manage your stress.
The beauty about energy psychology techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is that it can reprogram your body’s reactions to the unavoidable stressors of everyday life, thereby providing a more lasting effect. While it’s easy to do on your own, it’s advisable to seek the help of a licensed therapist13 if you’re dealing with trauma-based stress such as PTSD or grief following the loss of a loved one.