A Couple Ideas to Inoculate Ourselves from Chronic Stress

Back in the spring I got bit by a dog as I was running at Hopkinton State Park. He was a big shaggy-headed sheep dog. 

I saw a cluster of people gathered in the road chatting. There were 7-8 dogs tearing all over the place, having a grand time, all of them off leash. Big Shaggy, however, was sitting obediently next to his human and watching me intently as I approached. As I was skirting as far around the gaggle as the road allowed, Big Shaggy charged. He got his maw around my right thigh and clamped down hard. I gave him a massive clout to the ear at which he yelped and skulked back to his oblivious human. 

I will refrain from ranting about inconsiderate folks who let their dogs off leash in areas that are clearly marked, “All dogs MUST be on leash”. I’ll save that for another time. 

Instead I’d like to use the experience to highlight how the stress response works. 

And, I’ll offer a couple of ideas we could incorporate with our daily exercise to not only mitigate chronic stress, but to inoculate ourselves against it. 

In an earlier post, I mentioned that our response to external stressors can range from mild to severe. 

Fight or Flight…

When it’s severe our brains instantaneously trigger the fight-or-flight response. It’s a complex cascade of biological processes that mobilize both body and brain to respond to the threat, and it imprints a permanent memory. Think about a scary thing that has happened to you. There are details of that experience you will never forget. That’s an evolutionary adaptation that will help you remember the next time, “where exactly did I blunder into that saber-toothed tiger?” Or, a big shaggy-headed sheep dog? 😉

What happens next is a breathtakingly fast electrical and hormonal domino effect. The panic button of the brain, called the amygdala, sounds the alarm and fires off messages to our adrenal gland to dump epinephrine (often called adrenaline) into our bloodstream which immediately elevates heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing, while tuning our alertness to razor sharp clarity. It also tunes up our neuromuscular system to respond rapidly with either fight or flight. 

At this point, the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that governs executive function, performs a lightning fast assessment of the degree of danger and makes a snap decision to fight or fly. 

As Big Shaggy was clamping down, with no conscious thought on my part, my prefrontal cortex issued orders for me to fight. So, I instinctively landed a satisfying thump to the side of his head. Next, the massive flood of epinephrine in my bloodstream elicited a powerful rage. We’ve all experienced that in the immediate aftermath of being spooked by somebody. Even as the initial shock is beginning to pass, we feel intense anger toward the source of the unpleasant surprise. 

Phase 2 of Stress Response- Cortisol…

Before the shock of being bitten had even passed, my primal instincts turned nearly homicidal. Striding toward Big Shaggy’s human, for a couple of heartbeats, my intent was to do him extreme violence. Thankfully, my prefrontal cortex made another rapid assessment, decided that the threat had passed and ordered my amygdala to have me stand down. Instead of blows we only exchanged a few words. 

This entire episode transpired in the span of maybe 3 seconds. Pretty fast. 

As all of this was going down, my brain set in motion the second phase of the stress response mechanism. 

It signaled another part of the adrenal gland to begin releasing the second major stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol’s role is primarily to marshal additional resources the body might need to survive the threat. It begins by directing the liver to make more fuel available in the bloodstream. It shuts down insulin receptors in parts of the body that won’t be needed in the immediacy of the threatening environment, such as the digestive system. That allows the brain and muscles to have first dibs on the available fuel (glucose). Cortisol goes on to stockpile fuel as belly fat in the event we might need those reserves at some point in the future. 

This remarkable biological process has helped our species survive and prosper for millennia. When threatened, we have a genetically programmed, lightning fast reaction mechanism. It is an elegant and amazingly effective process. 

Cortisol Only Becomes a Problem When…

It only becomes a problem when we perceive our environment as continuously threatening. That happens when the persistence of our external stressors keeps our threat response mechanism in a continuous state of readiness. We never stand down.

When that takes place, our adrenal gland continues to produce cortisol. Persistently high levels of cortisol are very detrimental to our physical and psychological health. In fact, at certain levels cortisol will kill our brain cells. 

We’ll explore that in more detail in my next post. 

Meanwhile, I’ll share a couple more actions you could take today to protect against the effects of chronic stress in your life. See the box below…

Like nearly everyone we know, Jules and I deal with our fair share of chronic stress. Running a small business ain’t for the fainthearted. By educating ourselves and staying focused on the essential things in life, thankfully we’ve learned how to manage much of that external stress. If your current circumstances seem overwhelming and you’ve been struggling to prioritize your health and fitness, we’d like to be a resource to you. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. And please share this with anybody you know and love who could use some support and guidance. 

We’re very grateful for your support!

A Couple Ideas to Inoculate Ourselves from Chronic Stress

  1. Sleep at least 7 hours every night. Most folks actually need more than that. Sleep is the most powerfully effective performance enhancer available to us. Similarly, inadequate sleep is perhaps our most troublesome performance inhibitor. Let’s speak frankly… we might be able to “get by” with less. But doing so is simply exacerbating our chronic stress. Seriously, it makes it worse. It will literally begin to tear down the structure of key areas in our brains associated with memory, executive function, and emotional control. But, plentiful sleep actually serves to rebuild and buttress those areas. Now, buy a decent mattress, shut off your TV and put away your phone, go to bed earlier, and get yourself some better sleep!
  2. Mindfulness works. This doesn’t have to involve loopy stuff like sitting cross-legged on the floor with a bandana on and weird flute music playing. It can be as simple as pausing every so often throughout the day, slowing things down and filtering out the external noise and distraction. I personally find traditional meditation almost impossible. My ADHD addled mind just won’t cooperate. Instead, I find little interludes of peace when I’m outside walking or running. That actually combines a couple of beneficial activities and who doesn’t love a two-for? Find what works for you. Then be consistent.  

Paul Reilly

Paul is the Owner and Founder of MidStrong. He created MidStrong in 2017 to train men and women in midlife who are busy with work and family to build muscle and burn fat so they can look and feel better than they did in their 20’s. MidStrong is making Functional Fitness training safe and fun, and inclusive. He and his wife, Julie also own and operate MidStrong locally, their bricks and mortar business, previously called ACCELERATED Strength & Balance. It is a boutique fitness center specializing in training folks in and around Westborough through the challenges of midlife for more than five years.