Wellness — July 19, 2019 at 1:25 pm

Stress Less and Start Living: A National Crisis, Part 1

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By Chad Morris, Staff Writer

The United States was the global leader for life expectancy in the 1960s, but this trend was short-lived, so to speak. Life expectancy in the U.S. has been declining for decades relative to other developed countries—it’s now 1.5 years less than the OECD country average. As of 2018, life expectancy dropped for the third year in a row. The last time that happened was in 1915 and World War 1 and the Spanish flu were to blame. We’re not in the middle of any world wars or pandemics, so what the heck is going on?

HBO’s documentary, One Nation Under Stress by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, explores the significant rise in mortalities associated with substance abuse and suicide, called “deaths of despair.” Gupta asserts that the culprit is chronic stress and its relationship to depression, anxiety, and self-medicating.

Why is everyone so stressed out? After all, we live in a time when Amazon delivers whatever we want directly to our doorstep. With all the modern conveniences, shouldn’t we be less stressed? Well, it’s not that simple. We glorify success and status, but inequality is growing; we need our friends and family for emotional support, but these networks are dwindling, and we feel more socially isolated; we expect to live a comfortable life if we work hard, but we feel powerless to the whims of the economy. That puts a lot of pressure on each of us. So what effect is all this stress having on our bodies?

The stress-response system temporarily increases our heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, and pumps cortisol and adrenaline through our body. Stress has been essential to our survival as a species. The problem is that our brains never got the memo that modern living no longer involves being chased by bears. Our brain still reacts to each stressor as if it’s life or death, and that’s a recipe for disaster.

Not only are the physical responses to stress taxing on the body, stress can also influence our brain’s structure. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for regulating our emotions, cravings, empathy, and other high-cognitive abilities. It’s also the most sensitive to stress. Chronic stress can cause the gradual shrinking of the prefrontal cortex by disconnecting the roads between nerves, called synapses. As this section of our brain loses volume, we find it harder to cope with adversity, resist our impulses, and control our emotions, let alone empathize with the feelings of others. We begin losing control over the very qualities that make us human.

Well, thanks Chad—that all sounds very doom and gloom. Here’s the silver lining: the brain’s neuroplasticity means it can change throughout our lives. Not only can we undo some of the ill-effects of stress, we can also build healthier, stress-resistant brains through our thought patterns and habits. As someone who’s dealt with his fair share of stress, anxiety, and depression, I’ve learned coping strategies in both my personal experience and in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Over the next two parts of this series, I’d like to share what I’ve learned to help you stress less, so you can get back to living.

The statements made in this article have not been evaluated by Health Canada or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. None of the information presented is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. This is a personal account and individual experiences may vary. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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