Stress? Part 1 - What do They mean by Stress?
Did you ever wonder what stress they are talking about when you read or hear “This symptom is caused by many things, including stress”?
What is stress, exactly? Is it something I can avoid? Is the stress of making daily decisions going to harm me? Is the stress of making a social blunder going to be reflected in my blood test?
I was curious and here’s what I found.
Medical literature speaks about biomechanical stress and since it seems the most straightforward, I’ll start with it. If you ask an orthopedic surgeon, you might get the same answer Dr. Arun Pal Singh gives - “Stress is dependent on the force that is applied to bone and the size of area on which the stress is applied.” Basic physics.
That sounds like trauma or injury that is a direct result of a force. It might be skiing down a mountain, hitting a hidden obstruction, tumbling tangled up in the skis, and breaking a leg. Biomechanical stress is clearly an assault on the body.
Now, let’s ask a cardiologist what they are talking about when they say biomechanical stress. Dr. Malcolm Kendrick explains[The Clot Thickens, The enduring mystery of heart disease] that the most common mechanical stress on the body is plaque buildup in the arteries. Plaque interferes with the flexible nature of arteries, so they lose stretch/rebound and don’t respond well when the heart pumps the blood through them. And, as you probably guessed, blood pressure rises, causing the heart to work harder than it should. This is not good.
The stress he is talking about is not limited to the heart. Feedback loops include kidney damage, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammation of the lining of the vessels or organs, to name the most common ones. The underlying cause of plaque formation that results in all these diseases is typically metabolic inflammation, he tells us.
This is getting a little complicated, but we are still just talking about the physical body, right? Well, not quite.
To continue the broad topic of stress on the heart, I’d like to introduce a condition called Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, extreme damage resulting from the connection of the heart [muscle] and the heart [emotion].
Emotional stress and a broken heart.
In 1990 a new medical diagnosis was introduced that recognizes the broken heart. It is seen when a person experiences extreme emotional or physical stress resulting in a tear in the cardiac muscle. The damage can be sudden and irreparable.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy is functional stress of the heart that can be sudden, or it can take years to develop. The causes may be a severe and acute emotional condition or chronic anxiety and depression leading to metabolic syndrome leading to cardio-vascular injury developing over time.
Now we begin to see clearly the emotional stress causing a serious impact on the physical body (including death).
This is rare but we can find common examples of this emotional/physical relationship.A research team led by Carnegie Mellon University's Sheldon Cohen published this:
The immune system's ability to regulate inflammation predicts who will develop a cold, but more importantly it provides an explanation of how stress can promote disease… When under stress, cells of the immune system are unable to respond to hormonal control, and consequently produce levels of inflammation that promote disease. Because inflammation plays a role in many diseases such as cardiovascular, asthma and autoimmune disorders, this model suggests why stress impacts them as well.
Cohen demonstrated that prolonged stress alters the effectiveness of cortisol to regulate the inflammatory response because immune cells become insensitive to cortisol's regulatory effect. In turn, runaway inflammation is thought to promote the development and progression of many diseases and common illnesses. 
Connecting physical symptoms with mental/spiritual causes of stress, as in Takotsubo cardiomyopathy above, should not surprise us. The concept of holistic health care emerged in our modern era because treatments had become compartmentalized. People who were not health professionals began to realize a pill or surgeon’s skills cannot protect us from all illnesses and, in many cases, cannot successfully treat illnesses. Compartmentalizing symptoms was becoming less acceptable as folks realized that psychological wounding, spiritual isolation, and physical maladies must be considered together if healing is to be successful.
That open-minded logic was gaining popularity when I switched from nursing to acupuncture which offered a broad view of illness accompanied by treatments that integrated the body and emotions.
Unfortunately, we still see medical specialties dominating while illnesses stay one step ahead, becoming increasingly complicated and convoluted.
When I was a child, this is what I observed: the school nurse had a red and stinky liquid that she would apply to skinned knees, band aides, baby aspirin, and a cot you could lie on. Now school nurses dispense large amounts of prescription medications. Back then doctors were consulted for physical ailments and medication including antibiotics, analgesics, aspirin, a few over-the-counter medications, and surgery, Mental/emotional conditions were addressed with Valium and the psychiatrist’s couch. In that case, needless to say, there was a lot of denial because the psychiatry route was often seen as an endless journey or just one station away from the loony bin and lobotomies or shock treatments. Thankfully that has improved.
Now we know there is neural improvement with talk therapy which activates BNGF [brain-derived neural growth factor], leading to a proliferation or pruning back of neural connections. [The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, MD]
We go through this complicated world as a whole package. “What you put into your body and mind affects the whole organism, determining function and resilience… Your body is a complex machine and keeping it humming along beautifully as you age calls for a plan…to handle whatever the world throws at it.[The New Rules of Aging Well: A Simple Program, Dr. Frank Lipman]
I would add, we have to become familiar with the understanding of wholeness and it includes our body and our attitude. We have to be willing to adjust our healthy choices to meet current knowledge, but we can also benefit from ancient wisdom.
Aging can be a wakeup call. We can improve even as we advance through our life span by engaging our spirit and body, becoming holistic. When we can become intimate with ourselves through observation and curiosity, we can make adjustments that serve the goal of strong health. You probably realize it is not healthy to blow up minor annoyances into prolonged anxieties. This is easy to say, of course, but changing how we view our responses is a skill meditation can teach us.
Another useful avenue is the serious study of stoicism, originating in ancient Greece [If you are not familiar with stoicism, I recommend: The Beginner's Guide to Stoicism: Tools for Emotional Resilience and Positivity, by Matthew Van Natta]
These are only two suggestions. You may have your own teacher, tradition, or supportive community. If you do, lean in and grow.
As one writer said, “There’s no magic pill for health and immunity. But with mature reflection, the immune system and body responses become stronger.”
When we acknowledge principles of our biological nature, both physical and non-physical, we build strength and energy. As my herbal professor, Ted Kaptchuk, OMD, used to say, reflection turns food into prayers.
Think about that.
 Now we know there is neural improvement with talk therapy which activates BNGF [brain-derived neural growth factor], leading to a proliferation or pruning back of neural connections. [The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, MD]
 The Clot Thickens, The enduring mystery of heart disease, Dr. Malcolm Kendrick.