Compared to times past, psychological stress is much more frequently discussed and recognized as an important contributor to dysfunction and disease in the body. We’ve made important strides as a society.
I’ll never forget a visit that I had to a dermatologist when I was teenager. This doctor was still practicing in his late 80s or early 90s. At some point in the visit, I asked him about the potential role of stress in contributing to my symptoms. He responded with an eye roll, looking away, and a stern: “Stress? I don’t believe in ‘stress’”—as though stress were some kind of mythical story only some believe in! This kind of opinion was not uncommon in years past. Suffice to say, times have changed (for the better)—and we have a lot of compelling data suggesting excessive chronic stress (and I’m referring in this article specifically to psychological stress) is one of the most significant risk factors for many of the most prevalent chronic diseases. Additionally, stress tends to lead to less ideal dietary choices, exercise habits and sleep quality—the other critical pillars of health. So it’s essential to address.
However, even as more people recognize the truth that chronic stress is not good for health, I fear that too many of us are still underrating just how important this fact is, and in many cases how much stress we still carry—perhaps even unknowingly.
This is a thought I’ve had increasingly often the more time I spend in clinical care with patients. I continue to recognize how frequently stress comes up as an underlying cause (and often the primary cause) of a person’s symptoms. Many times, the person I’m working with will not necessarily come in consciously aware of the stress they’re holding in their body.
Here’s the thing: we should not feel bad about ourselves if we come to recognize that stress is a problem. It is a problem to some degree for virtually all of us in modern society. It’s harder than ever to be mentally and emotionally healthy (not to mention physically). We live in a world where consistent engagement with computers and smartphones is not really optional anymore for most of us, even if we would like to live “off the grid” (what a refreshing thought). It’s much like the modern food environment—everyone who wants to be healthy is confronted with the temptation of readily available, hyperpalatable, processed food that surrounds us at the grocery store and convenient fast food chains. Our brains have access to candy and fast food nearly all day every day. We are all “swimming upstream,” in a way, in order to stay healthy in the 21st century.
This is not to suggest that technology and mental overstimulation are the only causes for excessive chronic stress. Many people are struggling with significant life challenges including things like taking care of an ill family member, dealing with past traumas, working a taxing job, raising children who have special needs, facing the loss of loved ones, or any of many other burdens that many of us have to bear in this life. These causes of stress are typically easier to recognize as causing stress and being important to address for one’s emotional health. But it does not mean they are easy to live with or overcome. It just means that for these individuals, supporting mental/emotional health as a critical pillar of health is that much more important: not only for day to day well-being, but also long-term health and happiness.
Whether you have clear life stressors that are causing excess chronic stress, or feel you may be experiencing undue daily stress “for no good reason”—everyone deserves to understand how to support their mental and emotional health.
This was part I of a two-part series on stress. In the next post, I’ll outline how to better recognize if you may still be experiencing suboptimal levels of chronic stress, and the best things you can do to work on that and get your health into a much better place!
Andrew Graham is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner licensed to practice in the State of Arizona. He completed his Master’s in Nursing from Boston College after earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutritional Science from Brigham Young University. Before receiving his conventional training, he discovered and began studying functional and integrative medicine many years prior after dealing with health issues himself. Andrew is committed to thoroughly investigating patient’s health concerns in an effort to identify root causes, and then using the most effective combination of conventional and integrative modalities in order to optimize health and well-being. Particular interests include gut health, nutrition, blood sugar issues, hormonal imbalances and longevity medicine.