We live in a high-stress culture. The very nature of capitalism demands more work and less fun. Before the internet we competed with our neighbors to have the nicest cars, the most well-manicured lawns, the biggest diamonds in our wedding rings, and the brightest holiday displays every December. Social media has taken it a step further, into our neighbors’ every meal and family vacation.
The current divisiveness of our political climate is just making things worse. An American Psychological Association survey found that 52 percent of Americans reported that the 2016 presidential election was a somewhat or significant source of stress. Findings were basically equal for both Democrats and Republicans.
The same study found that social media is a significant source of stress, with avid users of social media reporting higher stress levels than those who avoid it. The inception of cable news and the 24-hour news cycle is also correlated to higher levels of stress nationally.
There is an increasing awareness among physicians and psychologists of the relationship between stress and illness. A quick Google search for “stress and disease” or “stress and autoimmune disease” delivers hundreds of articles and studies on the subject.
Stress causes the release of a hormone called cortisol which, among other things, regulates our immune response. Cortisol is also what triggers our fight or flight response, which was great back when we had to react quickly to attack from a prehistoric predator, but has proven less useful in the age of technology and couch potatory.
The biological process of fight or flight was originally discussed in a 1936 article in Nature magazine by a Canadian biochemist named Hans Selye of McGill University in Montreal. In it, he explained that without a physical reaction to the fight or flight response, cortisol levels build up in the blood and cause all kinds of crazy. (That’s my paraphrase added for flair.)
The cavemen had little time or mental capacity to worry about interpersonal relationships. Their biggest cortisol release required a physical response – to either fight or flee. The physical exertion of these tasks rid the bloodstream of excess cortisol and brought back balance within the body.
The things that scare us nowadays are usually more subtle – emotionally complex conflicts in which we either quietly endure or verbally lash out. But either way, we aren’t responding the way our bodies were designed to when faced with high levels of cortisol. This is why it is so crucial to exercise, particularly during times of high stress.
When applied to the right circumstances, the fight or flight response is a healthy, normal reaction to stress or fear. However, when cortisol levels don’t return to normal after a stress event due to a lack of physical exertion, especially if this happens repeatedly over an extended period of time, illness is sure to follow.
Since cortisol is responsible for both our immune response as well as our fight or flight response, it makes sense that when our cortisol levels are off balance due to high stress our immune system becomes out of balance as well.
Dangers of chronic stress
Research has shown that chronic stress creates a slow-drip of extra cortisol to be added to the bloodstream every day. Studies done on veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as adults who experienced prolonged childhood trauma, show the dangers of living with prolonged stress.
The body is highly adaptable. Eventually, it will try to compensate for this hormonal imbalance and actually become addicted to the high level of cortisol. Have you ever known someone who appeared to be “addicted to drama”? This may actually be more than merely a relatable colloquialism. After a while, our bodies become more comfortable in this heightened state, and we are actually physically unable to relax.
Numerous studies done on abused children and adults who were abused as children have found that heightened levels of cortisol over a long period of time actually changes the DNA of children as they grow, altering their ability to adapt to stress or respond to it appropriately as adults.
Most children of abuse* learn early on that there is no use speaking up – their voices won’t be heard anyway. They learn to try to disappear so as not to upset the abuser. They live lives of silent fear, never letting their guard down, and thus never leaving the fight or flight state. Their cortisol levels are through the roof, even after years away from the abuser, and their DNA is permanently altered.
*It’s important to note here that “abuse” doesn’t just mean physical or sexual violence. Emotional abuse can be equally damaging and just as terrifying. Also worth noting is that all toxic relationships, whether you are an adult or a child, create a fight or flight response. Toxic relationships are toxic, meaning poisonous to our bodies on a cellular level.
Dealing with anger
When we are faced with challenging relationships, whether it be in our interpersonal lives or dealing with strangers we disagree with, we automatically feel stress and anger. Divisive political figures, bullies at our children’s schools, demanding bosses or pushy coworkers, that guy that cuts you off in traffic… the list of frustrating and infuriating relationships we face is endless.
In order to redefine love, you must make peace with anger. Anger is rooted in fear. Fear triggers the fight or flight response, which triggers the release of cortisol, which over time builds up in our bodies with disastrous consequences. So it is crucial that we learn to deal constructively with anger if we are to redefine love.
A healthy new you
Challenging times help build character and provide an opportunity to learn and grow. We all know people who have come through terrible adversity or hardship and used that experience to improve their own lives and the lives of others.
If you look closely at these people, they probably have some things in common. They have made peace with their past. They have learned to recognize their own value in the world. They seek to help others rather than focusing only on their own struggles. Perhaps without even realizing it these people are well on their way to redefining love.
When we redefine love, we are not only blessing those around us by accepting them just as they are, despite our differences, but we are also creating better health for ourselves.
If you are raising children, redefining love could quite literally save their life. Raising our children in homes filled with anger, resentment, and fear alters their cortisol levels and their very DNA structure for a lifetime. They are more likely to suffer from autoimmune and heart diseases in adulthood. And they do not enter adulthood with the skills they need to make healthy choices about stress and relationships.
Children raised in a redefined love household will enter the world knowing how to manage their stress in healthy ways, with bodies that are fully equipped to respond to life’s challenges in an optimal way.
It’s never too late to choose health for yourself and your family.
Copyright © Redefining Love 2018.
Bergland, Christopher. Jan 22, 2013. Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” is Public Enemy No. 1. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1
Bethune, Sophie and Scott Rieder. Oct 13, 2016. APA Survey Reveals 2016 Presidential Election Source of Significant Stress for More Than Half of Americans. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2016/10/presidential-election-stress.aspx
Greenberg, Melanie. Dec 18, 2016. Why some stress is good for you. Psychology Today
Marisavlievich, D. and L. Stojanovich. Jan 2008. Stress as a trigger for autoimmune disease. Autoimmune Review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18190880
Nakazawa, Donna Jackson. July 7, 2015. Childhood, disrupted: Adversity in childhood can create long-lasting scars, damaging our cells and our DNA, and making us sick as adults. Aeon
You and Your Hormones: Cortisol. Jan 2017. http://www.yourhormones.info/hormones/cortisol/
The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for general informational purposes only. For mental health questions or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.