Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘stress’

Evaluating and Treating Stress

Let’s talk about stress, shall we? It’s the Holiday Season in North America after all. Frankly, it’s been on my mind pretty much all day, every day, for a couple of years now. Probably because it appears to have taken up permanent residence in my body and soul for that same couple of years. Lots and lots of talk about stress around me, too. Everybody is talking about “having stress” in their lives, especially as the holidays roll around, so let’s talk.

First of all, as in all things it’s important that we lay some ground rules, establish some definitions so that we are sure to be talking about the same thing. Stress is what appears in your body in response to stressors; stressors are what you have in your life that produce stress, like serving dinner to family on Christmas Eve. I know, I know, it’s a pretty fine point, but bear with me because I think it will make a bit more sense in a moment.

In my day job I am constantly asked if various and sundry ailments are caused by stress. The most accurate and honest answer, from a strictly medical/scientific standpoint, is “yes”. What people are actually asking me, though, is: are the ailments that they have a direct result of the stressors in their lives? Again, perhaps a bit of a fine point, but it will matter. Everyone routinely conflates “stress” with “stressors”.

You can reduce the stress in your body; you may or may not be able to effectively reduce the stressors that cause it.

Think about that for a moment. You can do quite a few things that will reduce the ailments you may have because stress has been induced in your body. The simple science is that chronic stress throws your neuro-endocrine “fight or flight” response out of whack. Our bodies secrete cortisol when faced with acute stress. This is in turn associated with a release of adrenaline. Your pupils dilate, your BP and heart rate go up, and you shunt blood to skeletal muscle in preparation to do battle or to flee.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, causes an increase in both the basal cortisol secretion and a blunting of the normal daily secretion pattern of more in the AM and less in the PM. You have a flatter curve over the day, and the whole curve is elevated. In time you have a chronically elevated BP, and your state of chronic “readiness” begins to affect all manner of the rest of your systems. Stress then becomes a stressor itself, a repeating negative feedback loop. For example, your sleep pattern gets fried. Heck you may not sleep very much at all. That makes stress worse. That “lump in your throat” feeling when you are just pre-panic”? Yeah, that can be there all the time. It even has a name: globus.

Rather ominous word, that. Globus. Stresses me out just typing it.

Here’s the rub: if you could avoid stress—the adverse affect on your body—who wouldn’t do so? When people talk about trying to have less stress in their lives what they are actually saying is that they wish they had fewer and less powerful stressors causing that stress. Work issues, illness, family strife, money issues…life would just be better if we didn’t have them. Pretty simple. Get rid of stressors, get rid of stress. Sadly, our ability to excise stressors from our lives, or even insulate ourselves from them, is somewhere beyond inadequate and approaches impossible.

What to do then? If we cannot avoid the root causes of our stress, how can we relieve it? It turns out that both the magnitude and particular variety of stress can often be measured. Specific symptoms (sleep abnormalities, globus) will point toward equally specific interventions. There are laboratory tests that can be ordered given your particular stress (e.g. midline fat deposition); nutrition adjustments can be made in response (elevated cortisol reduces insulin sensitivity->consume carbohydrates during periods of lower daily cortisol levels).

For me the bottom line is this: we likely have little to no ability to control stressors, those exogenous factors that incite stress. Further, left to its own devices, our body will respond with stress. We can manage that stress by acknowledging it, evaluating it, and then proactively going about counteracting it. You are a Black Box experiment with an n=1.

Attack stress in exactly the way you attack fitness or nutrition. Weigh it, measure it, analyze it, and then attack it.

CrossFit Transference

What have you done, or what are you doing, to make yourself better? Not just in the Box, not just more fit, but in general.

We talk about the transference of the stress response from the WOD to life, how our willingness to put ourselves under significant physical duress teaches us that we can, indeed, perform at times of stress. This really happens; your neuro-endocrine stress response really does require a bigger stimulus to fire in that way that makes you “freeze up” after you’ve been dosed with the CrossFit prescription.

There is more to be learned in the Box or wherever you do your own version of CrossFit, of course. We learn to look at people differently once we’ve done CrossFit side-by-side, or once we’ve shared our results here. It becomes less “what do you look like?” and “what did you say?” but more “what did you do?” and “how did you do it?”. This trait has gone with me out of the gym, been transferred to the larger and more inclusive domains of my non-CrossFit worlds.

Every day, in countless Affiliates, commercial gyms, and garages, folks who do CrossFit are engaged in the active pursuit of “better.” A thinner band, a first Pull-up, a kip, a butterfly…an endless pursuit of ‘better’ at what we do in our pursuit of fitness. This, too, should transfer, eh?

There is a willingness to try new things in CrossFit, often things that are at first glance simply unimaginable. “You want me to do WHAT with that Kettlebell?!” It’s a kind of knowing fearlessness, a faith in self and a belief in self that comes from choosing to enter that dark place where we know it will be hard, but we’ve learned it will be worth it. This openness to trying new things, to learn new stuff in the pursuit of a generally better you should transfer too.

The concept of transference from Box to life is one more of those things which was discovered after the fact of CrossFit. In my day job I deal with neuroplasticity, the re-wiring of the adult brain in response to purposeful stimuli. Al!ison Be!ger’s work shows us that our pre-wiring for connection in response to shared experience explains the CrossFit community. My experience with neural training to enhance vision explains in part the transference of the stress response.

Our willingness to try new things, to learn new things in the pursuit of greater fitness, can also become ingrained. Wired. It can become just one more example of transference. “Constantly learn” need not apply only to “new sports”, nor does “and play” necessarily have to apply only to “new sports”. I’ve found not only an increase in my curiosity about things far removed from my knowns and knowables, but also a willingness to brave what it takes to learn and play new ones in the pursuit of some better version of me.

So, what are you doing today to apply what you have learned in the gym in the pursuit of a better ‘you’ tomorrow?