Humans can withstand extraordinary stresses from the environment, but if we are pushed too far, our stress response turns on our own bodies and begins to create breakdowns both mentally and physically.
The human brain retains a primitive memory that is programmed to cope with every stress in basically the same way as our ancestors coped with saber-toothed tigers.
Most of the time, your cells are occupied with renewal – roughly 90 percent of a cell’s energy normally goes to building new proteins and manufacturing new DNA and RNA. When the brain perceives threat, however, the process of building is set aside. Whatever you decide to do in fight-or-flight situations, your body needs a massive burst of energy to propel your muscles. To allow this, the normal style of metabolism that builds the body, called anabolic metabolism, converts to its opposite, catabolic metabolism, which breaks down tissues.
Adrenalin launches a cascade of responses – blood pressure rises, muscles tense, breathing becomes shallow and rapid, sexual desire and hunger are suppressed, digestion stops, the brain becomes hyperalert and the senses uncannily clear.
What is so striking about the accumulated consequences of stress is that taken all together they look very much like growing old. Hypertension, ulcers, impotence, wasted muscles, and diabetes are common signs of aging. The elderly have lower disease resistance, and senility seems directly connected to lost or damaged neurons in the brain. Old people appear like shell-shock victims, exhausted by overlong exposure to the struggle of life.
Whenever stress is blamed for an ailment, people jump to the conclusion that the problem is too much stress, but in fact the fault lies with the body’s coping mechanism. The theory of stress must be modified to include the mind-body connection, for such invisible elements as interpretation, belief, and attitude are enormously important in the actual workings of the stress response.
Adapted from Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, by Deepak Chopra (Three Rivers Press, 1998).