Lord, help us. With the election, the economy, the business, the finances, the job, the world turmoil, and the senseless violence that permeates our culture, we are in need of some nurturing. It seems the normal holiday stress pales in comparison to the struggles and the losses so many have to endure. Just how are we to cope with the physical and mental stressors that we are so beset with? How can we process the grief that comes with loss of those so precious?
The acute stress of trauma, be it a threat, or sudden loss, causes a tremendous surge of the "fight or flight" hormone called adrenalin and following that is the stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol, made by the adrenal gland, is a good hormone in that it helps us carry the body through times of stress, such as infection or physical trauma. It maintains blood sugar and blood pressure and helps squelch acute inflammation.The effects of cortisol are life-saving, but sometimes the stressor is so strong that it messes up the body's ability to mobilize cortisol in a normal and healthy manner. This is often the case in people who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.Chronic stress, such as that which comes with the day in and day out of our hectic lifestyles, can put the adrenal response on "simmer" and lead to a continuing low level alert. Persistently elevated cortisol levels will causes breakdown of healthy muscle and bone while promoting high blood sugar and fat gain around the midsection, and will change brain chemistry leaving us feeling irritated, depressed and fatigued. Furthermore, cortisol can wreak havoc throughout the body and is linked to most of the diseases we are dying from, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.Clearly cortisol is a bad thing if it is called into action all the time. And to make matters worse, this long-term stimulation of the adrenal gland can also cause it to burn out and lead to adrenal fatigue, which is chronic fatigue combined with an impaired ability to respond to normal stressors.
With loss and grieving there is no way to avoid the stress response, only work through it, which may take months or years. For many, the stress is so great that it will leave a footprint forever upon the body and soul. Anyone losing a dear friend or family member knows the deep inescapable grief that takes hold. How we ever manage to get through these times is a testament to our strength, our spirit and our faith.The universal stages of mourning are experienced by all and were first described by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her 1969 book "On Death and Dying." Denial is the first reaction to overwhelming emotional shock of loss and it carries us through the first wave of grief. As denial wears off and reality sets in, anger arises, from deep inside where the emotional core of hurt resides.The third stage is a reaction to the need to regain control in the face of helplessness and vulnerability. Called bargaining, this is our attempt to postpone the inevitable reality of loss. "What if" or "what could I have done" thoughts intermingle with pleas of "if only I could undo what has been done."Depression is the stage of sadness and regret. Reassurance from those close can be critical for healing. A quiet internal struggle must take place in which one begins to say goodbye to a loved one. This leads to the final stage of grieving, acceptance.When working with patients going through the grieving process I always imagine it like being in a fog. Initially there is no light, only a thick fog of sadness. As time processes the emotions, the fog lifts a bit, letting in some light. Eventually, the fog clears enough for them to move forward in their "normal" life, but the fog often always present. At best, they are able to move around the fog and find meaning in life.Not everyone goes through all the stages of grieving, or in the exact order, and not everyone reaches the final stage of acceptance. There is no timeline for the grieving process. But throughout each stage, a common thread of hope appears. As long as there is life, there is hope, and as long as there is hope, there is life.
STRESS REMEDYSo we come equipped with this marvelous emergency stress response system that allows us to fight for our life or run for our life; this innate hormone system gave primitive man the energy to "fight the saber-toothed tiger." In today's complex world it seems we are always "fighting imaginary tigers" or "running from imaginary bears."For many of us, the best stress remedy is to simply divert our attention from a constant stream of worry to a more positive place. This might mean simply turning off the TV or the Internet and going for a walk. Taking 2 minutes to sit quietly and do some deep breathing is a powerful cortisol-lowering technique. Meditation, prayer, yoga, tai chi, exercise, hobbies, supportive relationships, all help lower cortisol. Focused activity is proven to lower cortisol and the stress response - so focus.Seeking help with grieving is good for most people, although the process is different for everyone and some need more introspective and quiet "alone time." As friends and family of one who is grieving we need simply remind our loved one that we are there, with reassurance, or just a hug. For those experiencing the loss, reach out to those friends and family and let them share a tiny bit of the burden with you. Professional counseling is something I've found helpful for many patients as well as myself during times of stress or loss.Things such as poor diet, lack of good sleep, chronic infections, allergies and toxic chemical exposures are other things that will trigger the stress response and eventually push the adrenal gland into fatigue. Address the issues you have control over. Nourish the body with healthy food so that it will be strong. Rest the body with plenty of good sleep so that it may heal and be resilient. Deal with stress or grief "head on" but then let it go for a bit and refresh the mind and the spirit. If you feel like stress is taking control then focus on the tools at hand to manage stress. Get medical help if the stressors seem to be beyond your control.During what should be a festive holiday season, remember those who are grieving. I pray for a "silent night" for them. Put aside petty concerns and focus on blessings. Don't let stressors win - don't let them keep you from enjoying the beauty that surrounds. Hold your loved ones close, savor the friendships and the times that nurture, and remember that the important things in life aren't "things."Scott Rollins, M.D., is board certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call 970-245-6911 for appointments or more information.