Jan 2017

BY David Bach, MD


Hacking Stress

After wandering out of the Santa Cruz Mountains, the lost mountain lion strolled through numerous backyards, took a trip to Target, and watched leisurely as people passed by, mere feet from the bush hiding him from view.
Thankfully, the fierce predator didn’t attack anyone before wildlife workers captured him. But if someone had spotted the wild animal, their brain would have released adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream. These potent survival hormones would cause their blood pressure and heart rate to increase, their pupils to dilate, and their vision to narrow. The result is a diversion of energy to the muscles needed to either fight or flee.
Few modern stressors are as electrifying as coming within mauling distance of a mountain lion. However, if you’re a high performer used to working, or even flourishing under stressful situations, you may be familiar with this feeling when nearing a finish line or meeting a tight deadline.
Our fight or flight system helps focus and motivate us in critical situations. Yet, when stress is prolonged it has powerful negative effects on both physical and mental performance. Documented adverse effects include: cognitive impairment, memory loss, sleep disorders, decreased immune function, and cardiovascular damage. For example, stressed adults who are caregivers for their spouses show a 95% higher stroke risk when compared to non-caregiver controls.

Why should i care?

Because our lives rarely involve mountain lion-level stressors, many people are unaware that their bodies are in a continuous state of stress. They are also unaware of the long-term damage this hormone imbalance is generating for their mental and physical functioning.

Today, there are exciting wearable technologies and applications that allow us to take an objective picture of how long-term stress is impacting our performance and our health*. In addition, they provide interventions that can help mitigate the progression of unwarranted stress responses.

• Nuffield HealthScore is an app that promises to track stress in addition to other health measures like nutrition and physical activity. This tool is helpful if you don’t show typical physical symptoms of chronic stress, such as acne, weight gain, or hair loss.

• Spire is a wearable sensor that tracks breathing and alerts you (via its smart phone-linked app) when it detects stressed breathing patterns. This is effective in combating stress because physical and emotional states are highly linked. In other words, slowed breathing promotes a relaxed state.

• The Pip is a small, handheld tool that measures your skin’s sweat excretion (a marker of stress) and coaches you on how to become more relaxed through its linked app.

For an individualized, biological measure of stress, there’s still nothing better than a doctor’s visit where blood pressure, heart rate, heart rate variability, adrenal function, and immune markers can be tested.

What If?

What if you became more aware of your ongoing stress level? Tense, raised shoulders or shallow breathing outside of an imminent danger or challenge may point to a lingering, unhealthy, stress response.
However, because moderate stress is actually beneficial to performance, it’s counterproductive to subdue all stress.
Instead, what if you found strength in your momentary stress response? What if you became aware of, and then reduced misplaced and prolonged stress? Studies show that this strategy is linked to improved mental function, sleep, health, enjoyment of life, and even longevity.

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