For the majority of human history, our stress came from threats like being chased by predators and hunting for food to survive. Of course, in our modern comfortable society, there are many ways in which we could use a little more of the grit of our ancestors.
In most cases, our stressors these days are tamer and rarely relate to our immediate survival. Your iPhone screen cracking again? First World problem.
But there is one layer of our modern problems that I believe, in some ways, is worse today: Over the long term, our chronic stressors are turning out to be the demise of our health. The rat race of today, with its deadlines, time stressors, 24-hour news cycle, and poor sleep is severely damaging our well-being.
Over time, humans have adapted something called conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA), a type of gene expression that's associated with inflammation and low immunity. So if you were being chased by a predator, CTRA allowed for some helpful short-term benefits, such as increased healing, physical recovery, and the increased likelihood of your survival.
But in ancient times, humans weren't chased by that saber-toothed tiger constantly. The stressful times would eventually calm down and allow the body to recuperate.
Now, with our modern mental and emotional stressors rarely turn off, our body constantly thinks it's being chased by a tiger. As a result, long-term activation of our brain's CTRA is contributing to chronic inflammation and increasing the risk of health problems.
Our emotional stress is a tiger chase that never ends, and it's wearing on our brains and bodies.
This is your body on stress:
I previously wrote about all the ways modern stress can hurt our physical health. In short, it can increase the risk of many chronic conditions, from obesity to heart attacks and autoimmune problems.
Inflammation is often the common factor between all the different ways stress can damage our health. One particularity damaging pro-inflammatory protein is something called interleukin-6 (IL-6 for short).
An interesting study, published in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, looked at the relationship between mental stress, our brains, and inflammation.
The researchers had 41 healthy adult participants do something that most of us sweat at just the thought of: math. As if that wasn't scary enough, they had the test subjects do it in front of a group of judges, plus deliver a five-minute public speech. (This might sound like the researchers were finding new forms of torture, but this was in the name of science!)
Afterward, the researchers took blood samples from the participants. They found that the longer they did math or spoke in public the higher their IL-6 (inflammation) levels were. In fact, while you might think that the levels of inflammation would go down after the participants had been doing it for a while, that wasn't the case. On the second day of public speaking and problem solving, stress and IL-6 levels spiked even higher than on the first.
How self-compassion can fight inflammation from stress:
But what the researchers discovered next was also astounding. It turned out that the group with the highest measured levels of self-compassion before the study—the ones who had acceptance of themselves—had the lowest IL-6 (inflammation) response to the stress.
This is a powerful message: Stress is inevitable, but our relationship with ourselves in the present moment contributes to whether we flood our body with inflammation or find calming balance for our body to thrive.
Acceptance and compassion toward ourselves can fight chronic inflammation from stress and in turn help decrease the risk of health problems.
This is the immense power that your thoughts and emotions have over your health. I see so many people who eat perfectly but stay unwell in part due to the unhealthy emotional pain and stress they are holding on to.
This is a message to forgive yourself and forgive others. You can't heal a body you hate.
What you can do to boost self-compassion:
One of the side effects of our new breed of chronic stress is the mental and emotional alienation from our true selves and others. We get lost in our own mind, consumed with a constant stream of obsessive, repetitive thoughts.
Finally, be kind to yourself. Make it a daily practice to have unconditional acceptance of who and where you are right now.