The One Emotion That Accelerates Every Disease + How To Manage It, From An MD
To state the obvious: We're living in a stressful age. And while sweaty palms, an increased heart rate, and racing thoughts now feel like the price to pay for existence, functional medicine doctor Robert Rountree, M.D., sees them as a real concern.
"Pick your disease, and stress is always there," he said on the mbg podcast earlier this year. "Whatever illness a person comes in with, at some point I'm going to talk to them about how they manage stress." Rountree doesn't think stress causes disease, per se. Instead, he calls it "the great amplifier" of illness.
"If a person is already prone to having an irritable bowel, for example, and then they get super stressed-out, it's going to amplify all of those symptoms," he says. So in addition to causing symptoms like headaches and insomnia in the short term, stress can accelerate one's risk of chronic disease further down the line.
"Can we make a case for some chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus or ulcerative colitis? Can we make a case for a relationship [to stress] there? Absolutely," he says. "It can play a role in these diseases where there's a more delayed response."
It's impossible—and ultimately, unhelpful—to try to avoid stress at all costs. Instead, Rountree says it's all about finding stress management tools that work for you and sticking with 'em. Here are three that he has found success with over the years:
1. Relaxing supplements
Rountree says there's something to the recent CBD craze but considers full-spectrum CBD products to be more effective for relieving stress in the short and long term.* For a quick refresher, full-spectrum extracts contain a number of beneficial phytocannabinoids—plant compounds that have a relaxing, balancing effect on the body and mind.* (By comparison, CBD isolate products contain only one phytocannabinoid: CBD.) When the hemp plant extract is taken in this form, its calming effects can really shine. And with a hemp extract, you don't need to worry about the psychoactive effects of marijuana since hemp plants legally need to be cultivated to contain less than 0.3% of THC.*
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While not a miracle cure, hemp extract can be the cherry on top of a solid stress management routine and help take the edge off of daily stressors.* Rountree has seen it be particularly effective when paired with other sources of phytocannabinoids, like black cumin seed oil.*
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2. Pragmatic thoughts
When Rountree has a new patient who suffers from chronic stress, the "locus of control" is one of the first things he talks to them about. "Part of what makes people feel stressed is feeling out of control, feeling like everything that's happening in the world is outside of their realm," he explains. One skim through the news only reinforces the feeling that we don't have any agency over the things happening around us and to us. This mindset can cause us to discount the areas of our life that we do have control over, exacerbating anxious thoughts.
The next time you fall into this way of thinking, integrative psychologist Aparna Iyer, M.D., recommends taking a step back and attempting to understand what part of that situation you do have influence over—no matter how tiny. "Even if it's something that seems super small, it can break this thought pattern and you'll be better off," she writes on mbg. "Chances are that you have more influence over the situation than you might think."
3. Box breathing
Rountree has been meditating for stress management for over 45 years. More recently, he found that adding controlled breathing techniques—specifically the box breathing method—to his routine. This breathwork entails releasing all of the air from your chest and holding your breath for 4 seconds, then breathing in through the nose for 4 seconds, then holding your breath for 4 seconds, then exhaling out of the nose for 4 seconds. Breathwork teacher Gwen Dittmar recommends repeating this 4-4-4-4 cycle for five minutes, or until you start to feel more calm. Rountree likes to call on this one when he feels suddenly overwhelmed by a stressful thought and wants to ground back into his body. Going back to the pragmatic thought component, breathwork is a good way to take control of your reaction when faced with a stressor that's otherwise out of your control.
While stress will always be a part of daily life, having the right tools can help take the edge off, which could pay dividends for health down the line.