Trying to prevent this? Me too. In fact, on most days I find myself wishing I was somewhere in the middle of that picture-life a little bit simpler, a little quieter, a little bit less stressful. Only, you know what? The one thing that hasn’t changed across that entire picture is how our body deals with stress.
Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains stress in terms of a zebra and a lion. Once chased by the lion, the zebra's sympathetic nervous system kicks in-the body’s fight-or-flight response. We’ve all heard of this, right? Running for its life, the zebra’s body creates a hierarchy of needs; in stunning biological fashion it enhances systems it needs and shuts down systems it doesn’t.
So, if one system, the fight-or-flight system is turned on, which one got turned off? The parasympathetic nervous system is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Don't worry about the big words! Just think fight./flight and rest/digest. The system opposite your fight/flight system is your need and feed, or rest and digest response. When utilizing our need and feed system, digestive, immunity, and reproduction functions are enabled-all processes which get shut down in a stress response.
So, is that why we get sick more often when we are stressed? Sapolsky explains that it wouldn’t be abnormal to experience cold or flu symptoms 7-14 days after a stressful event, as our immune system was disabled for extended periods of time, in fact stress is among the most reliable, if not the most reliable, factor to worsen diseases (Sapolsky, 2004).
Sufficiently scared yet? Don’t be. Ready to retreat into the mountains, encased in your protective physical and emotional bubble wrap? Let’s hold off on that for just a moment. Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist, reminds us that one of the biggest ways we can combat stress is in choosing how we think and feel about it. Check out this interesting video from TED, and I’ll see you next time!