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  • Dr Thor Conner

Why do humans get sick from stress?

We often think of stress in our lives as a bad thing, a negative that contributes to an unhealthy state. This is indeed true when the stressor is environmental. However, some stress can be good for you. When a being is exposed to a real or perceived stressor, a response involving the whole body enables it to go to enhanced performance levels and react. In the animal world, stressors are not long term threats, their reaction either saves them or they die. A deer will run from the wolf and either get away better off for the escape or die. When the stress happens and ends, it works like exercise, because cycles of short term stress are as necessary as breathing.

Why then are humans prone to the negative effects of chronic stress? Because of the human capacity of forethought. We can spend a lot of time dwelling on stressors, staying in that stressed state so we are effected negatively in the long term. This worry is a major cause of chronic stress, and we have to learn to cope with this emotional state in a positive manner. But the secret to management is the same as the cause, human thought: we have the ability to look objectively at our stressors, and adapt how we perceive them. We call this mindfulness, the ability to change our perceptions of threats, whatever they may be.

There are many tools we can use to aid us in mindfulness practices: relaxation and breathing exercises expressive therapies such art or writing, good communication skills, meditation, and creative visualization. One of my favorite techniques is cognitive restructuring, which is learning to identify and dispute irrational or maladaptive thoughts.

The best approach always begins with self-care: diet, exercise, sleep, mental stimulation and a healthy physical and emotional environment. Starting with a strong foundation is a great way to address any health issue, then we can take things a bit farther with more active interventions like specific foods, herbs, supplements, and mindfulness practices. A mostly plant-based, whole food diet low in sugar, caffeine and alcohol will turn a cause into a cure. Minimize processed foods and avoid your individual food sensitivities. Vitamins and minerals are often depleted from stress so might need to be supplemented. Adaptogenic herbs, like ginseng, rhodiola and ashwaganda reduce production of stress hormones and increase the body’s tolerance to stress. And never forget that a good massage is one of the best stress management tools ever!

Stress is an individual experience, thus each person must find the tools that work best for them, but a naturopathic doctor can be helpful on your journey.