Stress Management and the Joys of Freeway Driving

By Darrel Crain, DC
Stress, Stress Relief & Stress Management

“It is generally believed that biological organisms require a certain amount of stress in order to maintain their well-being.” So, according to Taber’s medical dictionary stress is good for us. But what is meant by ‘a certain amount?” Just the usual daily stress that makes you want to gesture creatively with your hand toward the guy who just cut you off on the freeway? Or are we talking about the ‘throw your television set through the living room window’ kind of stress? I guess we shouldn’t stress over this too much and just take the old English proverb to heart, ‘A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner.”

Mark Twain offered this about coping with stress: ‘By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man’s, I mean.” Which brings up the stress management industry. These enterprising people discovered a goldmine when they began selling the dreamy notion of reducing or totally eliminating stress. Eliminating stress? Who are they kidding? Where would we be without stress? Do they think our nation’s greatness was forged by people wearing little finger cymbals and sitting cross-legged all day, blissfully chanting mantras of universal love? And anyway, have you seen what happens to astronauts’ bones when the stress of gravity is eliminated? Osteoporosis, that’s what happens! Stress keeps America on its toes, baby.

Here’s the tough love, if you want breakfast in bed, go sleep in the kitchen. If you want your bones to be strong, stress them with walking, running and other kinds of exercise. I’ll never forget a conversation I once had with a stress management professional. Her advice? ‘Quit drinking coffee.” ‘Hah!” I said, ‘NEVER! GET REAL!” By the way, you may think I am addicted to coffee, but I am not. No way. I could quit anytime. I’m just not ready to quit coffee right now, okay? I’m just kidding. Look, can we talk about something else?

Suppose you and your sister were down at the watering hole about two thousand years ago filling some water jars when you noticed out of the corner of your eye a tiger crouching in the grass, waiting to grab you in its powerful jaws and bring you home for the family dinner. That sudden stabbing feeling that instantly jolted every single cell in your body was the ‘fight-or-flight” response. That instant release of stress hormones accounts for small females being able to lift a large Cadillac in one hand while pulling a child out from under the car tire with the other. In your case, as the tiger’s hapless prey, such a response was intended to give you superhuman strength and endurance to either run like the wind or fight like the devil. Admit it though, your first thought was, ‘I don’t have to run faster than the tiger, I just have to run faster than my little sister!” That’s when you noticed your sister was already disappearing up the path faster than a speeding cheetah.

The stress hormones got right to work for you, shutting down unnecessary body functions to shift all available energy toward surviving the next few moments. Digestion and reproductive functions were shut off, as were immune responses. After all, who needs to digest lunch or fight a cold if you are about to grace the tiger’s dinner table? Your heart raced and your blood pressure skyrocketed. Distractibility was heightened for maximum alertness, as was pain sensitivity. Blood sugar shot way up to make more energy immediately available. Other changes occurred, such as flipping the normal healthy cholesterol ratio in favor of the ‘bad” over the ‘good” cholesterol. This allowed for the production of more hormones and mobilized more energy stores. These and many other adaptations occurred all at once, all intended to be temporary responses to deal with emergencies.

Historically, this was all accompanied by some kind of extreme physical exertion, say, sprinting away from a tiger at 47 miles per hour. Such motion of the spine during exercise, especially the upper spine, is now recognized as a ‘reset button” to normalize body functions that were shut down, or else cranked up to respond to stress. Alert left-brain types will recognize this as the ‘homeostatic afferent somatosensory input into the cerebellar/brainstem/cortical loop of healthy life.” In English? Motion stimulates the nerves, the nerves stimulate the brain, and the brain sends the following message all around the body: ‘All is well, time to heal!”

Now it is time to fast forward back to modern life and the joys of freeway driving. Most of us no longer face tigers at the watering hole. In their place, numerous intangible, shapeless fears stalk us every day. We may fear the loss of a job, the loss of our health, the arrival of the big earthquake or sending our children off to war. In modern society, the stress response is triggered day after day, month after month, year in and year out. Worse, most people get only minimal physical exercise, inhibiting their body’s ability to reset all systems back to normal healing.

When the body adapts to stress, it is another miraculous expression of the body’s innate intelligence. Adaptations to stress are no more a disease than your body’s ability to increase the number of red blood cells when you move to a higher altitude. Yet how often are the symptoms of chronic stress diagnosed and treated with separate drugs as if each one were a distinct disease? One drug is prescribed to lower blood pressure, another to lower cholesterol, another to lower blood sugar, another to deal with indigestion, another to treat the inability to concentrate, and another to deal with erectile dysfunction, and so on. This becomes a vicious cycle as more stress hormones are released to try and overcome the suppressive effects of the drugs, because the body still calls for a stress response. What would happen if all these people could learn to reset their body back to the healing response?

Okay fine, you made it back to the village safely, but it was only because the tiger suddenly gave up on you in favor of an antelope. I think you really need to work on your running speed, though. Is it all right if I use your finger cymbals while you go run laps?


Copyright © 2006 Darrel Crain – All rights reserved.

Dr. Darrel Crain
Family Chiropractor
Natural Health Writer
President, CCA San Diego County District
619-445-0100

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