“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
Dr. Joseph Lamb, an Integrative and Functional Medicine practitioner on the forward edge of the evolution of holistic health and wellness in America, shares his views on stress and why we need to find refuge and renewal within our overly stress-filled lives.
All individuals are worthy of respect and reverence for the deep, intangible meaning and purpose possessed by each of us; yet for many, this personal touchpoint for creating optimal wellness has been lost. Healing involves more than knowing information. Healing requires recreating our story, our wellness and indeed our meaning and purpose. It’s an art. It’s a personalized path. It’s a dynamic dance of science and spirit.
I am sure that many of you reading this article could find a phrase or sentence in the first paragraph that rings true. But I am also sure that many feel like an exploration of one’s path isn’t the first task that comes to mind as we face a busy challenging world. But it is exactly this busy challenging world that creates the stress and dis-stress which fills our days and precludes our finding calm, peace and frequently the reward of joy in our day.
So what exactly is stress? Han Selye, PhD, a Canadian physiologist, was one of the first to ask this question in the 1930’s. Until Selye’s work, stress was the name used to describe the behavior of mechanical objects. Weight on top of an arch or a dome or even its owns weight would lead these structures to collapse. Early builders of domed basilicas used metals rods to connect one side of a dome to the other. Stress was the force placed on this rod that pulled the edges into the middle and prevented the baslica’s collapse.
Selye noticed in his animal work and in his work with human patients that there seemed to be a non-specific response of the body to a demand. Too much heat, too much cold, not enough food, an illness; these non-specific demands caused physiologic changes. Interestingly, when he coined the term stress for these non-specific responses, he used stress grammatically as a verb. He would say something like, “Putting a rodent in a cold temperature room stresses the rodent’s adaptive response to being cold.” Today we talk about stress as a noun collectively. If each of us made a list of these specific demands, I think we would find everyone has pretty similar lists. The problem with allowing stress to be a noun is that nouns typically take action. When a noun takes an action, it is the cause of cause and effect. The response suddenly becomes not one of “oh, I’m stuck in traffic,” instead it becomes “the traffic is killing me.” Instead of considering whether it’s a good or bad thing, just that act of being in traffic enables our mental shorthand and initiates a response.
The body’s response is adaptive when we face an acute stressor, but generally for our hunter-gatherer ancestors and even for most of human history, including right up through modern day, these stressors were actual physical danger. And though there are indeed some physical dangers associated with living in the modern world, most urban dwellers have 50 fight versus flight responses a day. These 50 stress responses, most of which represent more of a perception of danger to our ego than an actual physical danger trigger our adaptive response. But when constantly activated, the short-term solutions unfortunately create physical harm, making wellness a difficult goal to achieve.
These environmental stressors, life events, and the daily grind contribute to us perceiving a threat, and then perhaps increased vigilance, and maybe eventually a feeling of helplessness. These stressors provoke a behavioral response. Physiologically, we have used another term, homeostasis, to describe the stability we once believed our bodies desired. We all recognize a normal blood pressure as being approximately 110-120 over 70-80 mm Hg. Yet, none of us would want a blood pressure of 120/80 if we were competing in an athletic event or getting up on a stage with the need to be enthusiastic in front of 1000 people. In those settings, we would like to see our blood pressure more like 150 or 160 over maybe something like 60 to 70 in order to have the appropriate energy for the situation. This ability to change in response to our body’s changing needs is called allostasis. Unfortunately, the response to 50 fight versus flight reactions a day is a chronic elevation of blood pressure with resultant consequences that will manifest as symptoms. These symptoms are stress warning signs. These symptoms may be physical, emotional, spiritual, cognitive, behavioral, and relational.
Many of us are blind to the toll taken by the lifestyle choices we make and to how they magnify the effect of so much daily stress. We make choices that aren’t positive. Getting stuck in traffic, we think, “I’m going to be late for that meeting.” Instead of finding a way to bring ourselves back to a calm relaxed place where maybe there is an opportunity to use a discussion about traffic to reestablish rapport when we arrive, we are the one driving down the shoulder of the road putting ourselves and others at hazard. The consequence is the dis-stress and dis-ease we see slowly eroding the quality of our lives.
Better lifestyle choices can help us achieve wellness. Yet, in making successful lifestyle change we bump up against hurdles. It is in understanding the hurdles that you can actually overcome them and get through to the other side in an easier way. Julia Cameron, in an interesting book, The Artist’s Way, noted that “Over an extended period of time being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline.” “Enthusiasm is not an emotional state, it is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us.” I believe that this is worth considering as we recognize that stress interferes with our daily performances and our ability to focus on lifestyle change. With enthusiasm and creativity, we can be “excited to do this” as opposed to being “Oh my God, I have to do this and it’s one more thing I have to do.”
ABOUT DR. JOSEPH LAMB:
Joseph Lamb, MD is the owner of the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Clinic by Metagenics in Gig Harbor, Washington. He works in partnership with his patients to create optimal health and well-being by using Functional Medicine approaches including lifestyle modification, herbal and nutritional therapies, and cognitive therapy approaches. Past clinical experiences include nearly 17 years of private practice in Alexandria, Virginia at the Integrative Medicine Works and 4 years in Nashville, Tennessee at the Hypertension Institute.
Dr. Lamb is the Principal Investigator of LIFEHOUSE, a Lifestyle Intervention and Functional Evaluation – a Health Outcomes Survey. Dr. Lamb is doubly board-certified in Internal Medicine and Holistic Medicine/Integrative Medicine and is a Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner. He has lectured internationally, authored book chapters and recently co-authored a text book on vascular biology and published numerous academic papers outlining his work as the principal investigator in over 75 clinical trials. He is a director of the Commonwealth Consultants Foundation, a regionally recognized Middle Atlantic charity chartered, to provide unique educational and social experiences and opportunities for economically deserving children and young adults.
Learn more about Dr. Lamb: josephlambmd.com