Let’s be honest…
Words like “stress management”, “meditation”, “mindfulness”, or my personal favorite, “being present”, tend to evoke images of New Age pseudo-scientific nonsense, don’t they? One of my friends summed this up quite nicely with the following observation:
“The first time you talked to me about meditation, it sounded like weird hippie bullshit.”
- Honest friend
I felt the same way the first time I was exposed to the concept of stress management. It felt too…squishy, to be a serious scientific discipline worth examining.
Then I read a wonderful book called Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and my whole perspective shifted.
Why does stress management matter?
The answer to that question is rooted in 500 million years of vertebrate evolution. As Stanford professor and NYT best-selling author Robert Sapolsky observes:
"In vertebrates, the essence of the stress response involves mobilizing muscles."
Think about the implications of that statement. For 500 million years, vertebrates (which includes humans) have relied upon a system called the stress response to provide energy to muscles during critical times.
Running away from a predator? Thank your stress response for the burst of neurotransmitters, hormones, and glucose mobilization that act like nitrous to your body.
Trying to chase down dinner? Thank the stress response again.
The body's ability to respond to stress (i.e. situations that perturb our homeostatic balance) is an incredible adaptation that has served vertebrate life for countless millennia.
So what does the stress response have to do with us today?
To understand that, let's think about the human brain for a second. While it's a gross generalization, you can think of the human brain as broadly organized into three regions: the brain stem (reptilian brain), mid-brain (mammalian brain), and the cortex.
Humans are unique in that they can affect what goes on in the "basement" (the brain stem) simply by thinking (the cortex). In other words, you laying in bed at night worrying about your bills is sending the same signal to your body as if you were about to flee from a tiger. The difference is in intensity rather than kind.
Would you be healthy if you had to sprint for your life every 15 minutes to escape predators? Of course not, and that's exactly why stress management matters. The body simply sees stress, and in many respects, it doesn't matter whether it's physical, social, or psychological since the response is always the same: elevated cortisol, immune system depression, decreased reproductive capacity, building projects halted, digestion halted, etc.
Like many things in life, the stress response is a powerful tool when used sparingly, but turn it on all the time and things start to break. You can nail your Sleep, Nutrition, and Movement, but if you fail to manage Stress, then it can derail all of the progress you make with the other Levers of health.
In future articles, I’ll talk more about what stress management looks like in three key areas: physical stress, social stress, and psychological stress management.