Certainly you must be aware of the unique situation humanity finds itself in today. There are more doctors, scientists, therapists and advanced technology than ever in history, and yet we are more unhealthy, unfit and more sick than ever before!
How can it be that we put men on the moon at will, make laser guided missiles, have the ability to image your insides with incredible reproducibility and perform major surgery through a key hole, and yet last year alone, American pharmacies filled three billion prescriptions? On average, that is one prescription for every man, woman and child in the US every single month.
So what can you do? The key to getting satisfying results when assessing and treating all clients is to utilize a holistic approach. Simple, yet effective assessment methods can be used to evaluate the things that are important indicators of stress on the individual’s systems, not only the physical but also the mental, emotional and energy systems. Once you identify the systems of the body and areas of a client’s life where he needs coaching, you can begin with foundation principles, regardless of an individual’s challenges.
While clients learn how to better manage themselves using foundation principles, they can also be encouraged to work with other experts in any given area necessary to balance their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies. As a result, their energy and their activities improve. Regardless of the challenges, the following system can be used to determine what each client needs to do in order to achieve health and vitality by a series of steps.
Identify the Primary Stressor
The body is a complex living organism. It may be considered a cybernetic organism, or a system of systems. All body systems are inter-linked and inseparable. Not only are our body systems inter-linked and inseparable, and as such, we are inter-linked and inseparable from our external environment: the ecosystem.
Stress is pretty much always thought of as bad. Yet to become and remain vital, we require manageable doses of a variety of stressors (see Figure 1 below). The necessary stressors entering our bodies and lives can be broken down into six major categories:
- Physical: Correct exercise methods in an optimal dose of volume and intensity for each person aids in keeping the body resilient.
- Chemical: Our bodies have developed both the need for chemicals and the systems to protect us against harmful chemicals. While there are a myriad of possible examples of good chemical stressors, consider that the small doses of harmful chemicals used by plants to protect themselves are beneficial to our bodies in the correct doses. Parasitic organisms produce harmful chemicals, yet research shows that in absence of stimulus from parasitic organisms and their chemicals, our immune systems wouldn’t develop adequately to protect us in most environments.
- Electromagnetic: The sun is a very valuable form of electromagnetic (ELM) stress, yet you all know what happens if you get too much! But ELM stress is increased through exposure when using any of the modern electrical conveniences we all enjoy, such as our cell phones, computers and iPods.
- Psychic: While few enjoy the stress of an argument or being put into psychologically challenging situations, anyone overly protected from such situations would be psychologically underdeveloped, incapable of handling the world. The tipping point becomes unbalanced easily if we are not emotionally intelligent managing our selves and our relationships.
- Nutrition: Eating unadulterated foodstuffs that are ideal in macronutrient proportion for your racial, ethnic and genetic roots affords an optimal nutritional stressor, the stress here being the work of eating, digesting, assimilating, metabolizing and eliminating the foodstuffs and the nutrients contained therein.
- Thermal: Our bodies are very sensitive to temperature, like any living organism’s body. By being exposed to variances in temperature, it helps our body become more dynamic, better able to adapt to a variety or seasons and environments. Internal environments where air conditioning coolers are used can magnify the degree of stress we experience daily.
As you can see in Figure 1, the chart shows the physiological or good stressors indicated by green arrows, while red arrows indicate the non-physiological, excessive or bad stressors. If you look at it another way, the green arrows indicate forms of beneficial stress that result in the collection of "chi," or life force energy. The red arrows indicate that a given stress is absorbing or over utilizing chi or life force energy faster than it can be built it up.
When we are predominantly exposed to physiological or beneficial stressors, we maintain homeostasis (i.e., balance). The healthy body will also have a high capacity for allostasis, which is the ability to bounce back to balance after exposure to an excess dose of any given stressor. For example, if you go to the gym and work out, you will be breaking down tissue, creating inflammation, placing heavy demands on the thermo-regulatory system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, nervous system, etc. The stress of the workout temporarily throws your body out of balance. If your body is healthy, you will bounce back (allostasis) to balance (homeostasis) in short order.
The healthier your body, the faster you can bounce back from any given stressor. Looked at another way, the healthier the body (here meaning your physical-emotional-mental-spiritual being), the greater the stressor or number of stressors it takes to push you out of balance. As you can see in Figure 1, all stressors accumulate (funnel) in the body to create a total stress picture (green-yellow-red continuum). The more stress you accumulate, the more symptomatic you become, and the closer to death due to being out of chi you become. Needless to say, your tolerance for exercise, yet another form of stress, in most cases is reduced in proportion to the level of overall stress you are experiencing at any given time. This is why so many people have bad reactions to exercise, such as feeling worse, perpetual soreness or simply not seeing results.
Understanding Stress Perception
The human brain, a product of billions of years of evolutionary development, is imprinted with functional remnants from key developmental periods. Scientists that study phylogeny (development of species) also study encephalization, which is the study of brain development. Perhaps the most accomplished scientist in the study of encephalization of the human brain is Paul MacLean. MacLean has shown through years of research that the brain can be broken into three distinctly identifiable yet fully integrated brains that have the characteristics of our developmental predecessors. Referring to our brain as the triune brain (three in one), MacLean shows us that what makes up our brain stem and much of our autonomic centers is what the typical reptile has as it's entire brain, called the reptilian brain (see Figure 2).
The reptilian brain, although clearly identifiable by researchers, is not modular. Dr. MacLean makes it clear that the reptilian brain acts like operating software, such as your typical Microsoft Windows 2000. The reptilian brain, like Windows 2000, serves as a platform from which higher brain functions are dependent. The developmental outgrowths of the reptilian brain are the paleo-mammalian (old mammal) and neocortical (new) brain, as seen in Figure 2. More recent research now identifies a fourth component to our brain, which is referred to as the forebrain. It is the creative decision making aspect of the neocortical brain and is often diminished in size and function in those exposed to excessive stress during the developmental periods of childhood and adolescence.
This area of the brain is typically “reactive” to stress. By better understanding our innate developmental survival drives and behaviors, we can better understand what our ancestral software actually determines to be a useful or threatening stressor to the system. Our reptile ancestors have three primary survival drives that dictate their behaviors in any given situation. They are:
- Safety: Since the reptilian brain developed as an outgrowth of our developmentally older autonomic nervous system (ANS) or vegetative nervous system, it controls our internal organs and hormonal glands. The concern for territory and the protection of self are high priorities, and any perceived threat to the reptile’s safety, results in what is classically called the fight/flight response. Any survival threat immediately results in the production of stress hormones, as mediated by activation of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), often called the fight or flight nervous system. Any of the six classes of stressors in excess can threaten our safety and evoke a reptilian stress response, or what I call a survival response.
- Sustenance: Once the reptile is sure it is safe, then and only then does sustenance (eating) come into the picture. By the same token, anything threatening the reptile’s ability to feed itself will activate a fight/flight or stress response. In the human being, our reptilian software also sees any threat to sustenance as a threat to survival. Therefore, under eating, skipping meals or eating foods void of nutrition can activate the SNS, producing a stress response. As shown below in Figure 3, chronic activation of the SNS secondary to what is perceived by our reptilian brain as a threat to our survival comes at a cost to our hormonal and immune systems.
- Sex/Procreation: The genes of our reptilian ancestors and all our ancestors before them, all the way back to the single celled amebas, wanted to survive! Anything that threatens our ability to have sex or procreate ultimately causes a reptilian stress response, just like a threat to our safety or sustenance. Due to the complexity of our mammalian and neocortical developments, we often behave in accordance with a stress response because our higher brain functions (which are more creative) override our reptilian survival software.
This brief overview of the reptilian brain has been given to show that an excess of any one or combination of the six classes of stressors (Figure 1) can result in a direct or perceived stressor to the reptilian brain. Because the reptilian brain is inclusive of the ANS and because any stressor perceived as a threat to the organism produces elevated SNS tone (activity), there is an associated hormonal response. In a nutshell, any excess stressor (six major categories) entering the body/mind may itself activate the release of stress hormones (glucocorticoids), or it may be perceived as a threat by our reptilian software, which means a threat to our safety, sustenance or sex/procreation.
The Hormonal Sea-Saw
When our SNS tone is repeatedly elevated due to our life situation or our perception of life, our ability to recover from injury or achieve our physical goals with an exercise program are limited (see Figure 3). This is because chronic exposure to stressors of any type, particularly reptilian stressors, elevates glucocorticoid levels. Eventually, this leads to adrenal fatigue and often progressive breakdown of body systems. Which ones malfunction first is influenced by lifestyle factors and genetics.
As you can imagine at this point, there is no sense rubbing, poking and mobilizing tissues and joints if we are just treating the end product of a runaway stress response: a body that can’t heal itself no matter how good the doctor or therapist! As health and wellness professionals, it is important to investigate diet and lifestyle as well as the history of each client’s relevant physical, emotional, mental and spiritual stressors so you can assist each in calming the reptile and balancing the ANS for optimal hormonal function. Growth and repair are not possible otherwise! You will find that these individual’s merely bounce from doctor to doctor and therapist to therapist.
In Part 2 of this series, Chek introduces the Survival Totem Pole, a system of analysis that identifies stressors in the order of importance to survival so that you can prioritize your therapeutic and coaching efforts with clients.
- Connolly, Ceci. March 29, 2002. Pharmaceutical Spending Continues Steady Increase. Washington Post, p. A09.
- MacLean, Paul. (2002). The Evolutionary Neuroethology of Paul MacLean: Convergences and Frontiers. Ed: Gerald A Cory, Jr., and Russell Gardner, Jr. Praeger, Westport, Connecticut.
- Pearce, Joseph Chilton. (2002). The Biology of Transcendence: A Blueprint of the Human Spirit. Park Street Press.