Stress can be good and bad. When we feel excited by a new project or challenge stress can help improve out performance.
Negative stress or distress describes a situation in which the normal feedback mechanisms which would self regulate our physiology are disrupted. When these are disrupted we struggle to maintain our internal environment. (allostasis)
Stress is modulated through the action of the HPA axis. The Hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, which is a negative feedback loop. When we encounter a threatening situation or one which is seen to be so, the Hypothalamus releases CRH, corticotropic hormone, which causes the pituitary to release ACTH, adrenocorticotropic hormone which in turn releases glutocorticoids and catecholamines from the adrenals glands. This in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system putting us temporarily into fight, flight or freeze mode. Cortisol eventually leaves the system and the parasympathetic nervous system returns us to calm balance. (Ideally!)
The problem in repeatedly stressful situations, especially in childhood or adult hood means that the system fails to return to normal and high levels of cortisol remain in the system. Its is now proven, in a study with adolescent boys that heightened cortisol early in life is a major indicator of depression. (BMJ 2014; 348 https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g1654)
Cortisol helps carbohydrate metabolism. However, under chronic acute stress we can crave more carbohydrates, which can result in gaining weight and systemic inflammation (Kelcolt Glaser,2010). Inflammation is the underlying cause of many illnesses. While cortisol can modulate inflammation with anti-inflammatory cytokines, too much cortisol can cause the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines, having negative effects on the cardiovascular system, bone development and collagen production.
While manageable stress causes the release of endogenous opioids ( natural pain killers) in the body. Too much anxiety and stress is proven to cause pain and inflammation where it did not even exist before. (Ahles 1987). Furthermore ‘ increased fear anxiety and feeling of complete helplessness all amplify it’ (Samuel, 2017 )
Increased Pro-inflammatory cytokines in the cells can be felt as swelling, heat and pain and have a significant role in arthritis, diabetes and some cancers. Both, psychological damages, emotional or physical wounds are rooted in pain which derives from inflammation. Evidence shows that all pain stems from inflammation ( Omoigui 2007). When the HPA axis cannot self regulate and return the whole physiology into balance with parasympathetic influence, inflammation and illness can result.
So knowing the genesis of stress and its influencing factors. If I were to tell you that many if not all Mind Body Therapies actually encourage the rebalancing of the HPA axis by encouraging parasympathetic support (Hughes 2008.) They can help such as reflexology to ‘modulate the pain experience by increasing pain threshold and tolerance levels’ (Samuel ,2013)
This in turn lowers cortisol levels, in turn lowering inflammation, in turn lessening pain and more importantly if used frequently enough encouraging that all important balance. So that illness and inflammation and pain can be prevented in many cases from occurring in the first place. Much is down to how much we are prepared to invest in our own health and look out for when stress is taking a toll on our health and commit to regular self-care.