If You Don't Want Alzheimer's, Stop Sweating the Small Stuff
In our eternal search for more-ness, we are killing ourselves with stress. But what can we do about it?
The daily life of a typical American is deadly. We generally exist in a state of chronic stress that begins in childhood and continues throughout midlife. By the time we are old enough and wise enough to stop sweating the small stuff — the daily evidence of our supremely human lives — the damage is already done, and we find ourselves facing real consequences of chasing the American Dream: cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, cancer, psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders.
Your body is designed to deal with stress. So why does research show that 75-90 percent of all human disease — including dementia — is related to activation of the stress system?[R]
Think about when you get hot and start sweating or when you get cold and begin to shiver. Both are your body’s response to stress — in this case, environmental stress. When conditions change, your body automatically adjusts to compensate for those changes in order to get back to homeostasis[R]. The word “homeostasis” itself is a good illustrator: homeo in Latin means “similar to” and stasis means “standing still”. Your body is always adjusting to maintain this stillness.
In our busy lives, stress is everywhere. We barely notice our bodies struggling to maintain homeostasis.
Think about how you feel when you lay in bed at night trying to go to sleep. Perhaps you ruminate on anxious thoughts late into the night, your heart pounding and you toss and turn because you can’t get comfortable.
Or maybe you’re at a coffee shop trying to get some work done and the ladies next to you are talking unreasonably loud like a couple of teenagers who think everyone needs to hear what they have to say. That little pique of irritation…that is a stressor. And your body responds to it like it is something serious.
Stressful events — even those that are just in your mind — activate your sympathetic nervous system and what’s known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, or HPA. In response — without your input, approval or knowledge — your body starts pumping out neurochemicals, neurotransmitters, and hormones all in a bid to regain balance. This response is known as allostasis.
Allostasis is the opposite of homeostasis. It’s your body’s normal, healthy response to stress…like when you’re walking down the street alone at night and you hear footsteps behind you. The footsteps get closer and closer and before you even turn your head to look over your shoulder, your body responds by releasing chemicals called catecholamines. These chemicals increase your heart rate and blood pressure, priming your body’s natural ability to fight or to flee.
The problem is that most of us live in a state of chronically induced allostasis. And when your body’s natural and very appropriate response to stress is always in the “on” position, those mechanisms that are designed to save your life backfire, thus increasing your risk for a plethora of diseases.
When you are chronically stressed — mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually — your immune system becomes chronically inflamed. Research shows this chronic inflammatory response is the “common soil” of multifactorial disease. [R] As the name suggests, multifactorial diseases are common medical problems — such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and dementia — that do not have one single genetic cause but rather are caused by many contributing factors related to lifestyle, environment, and genes.
Like the nervous system, your immune system gets out of whack when it is constantly working under stressful conditions. During stress, your hypothalamus pumps out corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) which tells your adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids. While quick bursts of this stress response have an anti-inflammatory effect on the tissues in your body, these mechanisms backfire when overused. Rather than fighting inflammation, they begin to cause it.
Intense stressors over-activate the immune system and lead to systemic imbalance. In other words, chronic stress turns our greatest allies into our greatest enemies and ultimately creates the optimal conditions for your body to develop dementia and a host of other chronic, degenerative conditions.
In our eternal search for more-ness, we are killing ourselves with stress. But what can we do about it?Published in 1997, Dr. Richard Carlson’s book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers list. Twenty-three years later, the world is a much more stressful place to be. Americans are sicker, angrier, and more depressed than ever before.
Can any of Dr. Carlson’s practical strategies help you dial it down in this hyper-connected, us-versus-them, self-obsessed time we are living in and hopefully — maybe — give yourself a shot at living a long, healthy, disease-free life? Absolutely.
Learn to live in the moment
You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice mindfulness. It’s as simple as recognizing you have thoughts that are all over the place and are often very far away from what you’re doing right at this moment. For example, imagine you’re cooking a healthy meal and while you’re in the kitchen, all you can think about is stressful stuff like what didn’t go right today or what might go wrong tomorrow. Your intention is to feed your body well…but your mind is all over the place. Your sympathetic nervous system and HPA respond by releasing chemicals to protect your body from the stress that your mind is creating. In short, your best efforts at wellness can be thwarted if you don’t practice living in the moment.
Do one thing at a time
Slow. Down. Give yourself the chance to succeed, one thing at a time. There will always be a million things that you need to do with not enough time to get them all done…so just relax into it! Bullet journaling can be an incredibly useful tool for busy professionals with way too much on their plate. It’s one method you can use to eat the monster, one bite at a time. When you try to do everything that needs doing or run around multi-tasking like a chicken with its head cut off you’re telling your body that it’s fight or flight time and it responds in-kind by ramping up its inflammatory response.
Soften your most stubborn positions
Think about the last discussion you had around politics. I’m willing to bet that the longer the conversation went on, the more stressed you felt. Maybe your heart rate increased, or you felt flushed, hot and sweaty. Perhaps you had so much energy pumping through your body that you had to get up and pace around the room. After the discussion was over, did you get on your phone and read more about politics or get on your favorite news channel to see and hear others reinforce your beliefs?
During all of this, your body is pumping out neurochemicals, neurotransmitters, and hormones like it’s under attack. And it is under attack — from your mind. Remember that it’s just not worth it. There will always be people to disagree with and topics that spark great passion in your belly. Feel it for a moment and then let it go.
“The same boiling water that softens the potato boils the egg. It’s about what you’re made of, not the circumstances.” — Anonymous
Cut yourself some slack
Not smart enough. Not thin enough. Not pretty, tall, successful, funny, stylish, eloquent, sexy, wealthy or healthy enough. These thoughts that taunt us when we look in the mirror do far more than beat us down mentally and emotionally. They create an environment of chronic stress in our physical bodies, resulting in chronic inflammation — the common soil of disease.
One trick that has been useful for me when I am drowning in self-criticism is to picture myself at five years old and speak to that version of me. Inevitably, the words and tone I employ are kinder and more compassionate because it’s much harder to be unkind to that adorable, innocent, and unsullied version of myself. That mean little voice in your head is making your body sick.
Think of what you have instead of what you want
Consumerism is utterly pervasive. With the click of a button, Amazon will deliver anything our hearts desire…often in just one day. We sit around on our phones flipping through images of people we’ve never met in places we’ve never been, doing things we will never do. It’s an exercise in depression and as we know, depression creates a stress response which in turn creates an inflammatory response. Being grateful for what you have can literally improve your health.
Ask yourself, will this matter a year from now
These micro-stressors seem so intense from day to day and moment to moment…but do they matter in the long run? The person who cut you off in traffic and the stain on your favorite shirt feel really, really important in the moment and — if you’re not careful — will stick around as chronic stress, inflammation and eventually disease. Save your stress response for things that will matter a year from now or a decade from now, and learn to let the small stuff flow in and out of your life without attachment.
Don’t wait until a diagnosis to make changes in your life. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so take control of your mind and give your body a break.