(2) The Stress and Illness Link

Good afternoon!!  Thank you for joining us today.  

Featured presentation:  The Stress and Illness Link

There is a clear link between stress and illness.  This likely isn’t new information since it is discussed to some extent within mainstream culture; however the impact it has on our life and health is largely discounted.  

What I mean by this is that the link between stress and illness is so strong that it is possible to predict illness based on the amount of stress found in a person’s life.  Much of the early work demonstrating this connection was done by Hans Selye at the University of Prague in the 1920s. More recent studies have supported this early research.  These studies have begun to reveal the physiological process by which emotional responses to stress can create susceptibility to disease.

Many doctors have noticed that when their patients suffered major emotional upsets there was an increase not only in diseases, which are more likely to be acknowledge as being susceptible to emotional influences – ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease, headaches – but also infectious diseases, backaches, and even accidents.  

Dr Thomas H Holmes and his associates at the University of Washington School of Medicine developed a means by which they could objectively measure the amount of stress or emotional upset in a person’s life.  I’d like to take a moment to have each of you review and calculate the amount of stress that has been in your life for the last twelve months based upon the scale Dr Holmes and his team developed.

Social Readjustment Rating Scale:

Death of spouse 100
Divorce 73
Marital separation 65
Jail term 63
Death of close family member 63
Personal injury or illness 63
Death of a pet 60
Marriage 50
Fired from work 47
Marital reconciliation 45
Retirement 45
Change in family member’s health 44
Pregnancy 40
Sex difficulties 39
Addition to family 39
Business readjustment 39
Change in financial status 39
Death of close friend 38
Change to different line of work 36
Change in number of marital arguments 36
Mortgage or loan over $10,000 31
Foreclosure of mortgage or loan 31
Major violation of the law 30
Change in work responsibilities 29
Son or daughter leaving home 29
Trouble with in-laws 29
Outstanding personal achievement 28
Spouse begins or stops work 28
Starting or finishing school 26
Change in living conditions 25
Revision of personal habits 24
Trouble with boss 23
Change in work hours, conditions 20
Change in residence 20
Change in schools 20
Change in recreational activities 19
Change in church activities 19
Change in social activities 18
Mortgage or loan under $10,000 17
Change in sleeping habits 16
Change in number of family gatherings 15
Change in eating habits 15
Vacation 13
Christmas Season 12
Minor Violation of the Law 11


Notice this list contains events we all recognize as stressful, such as death of a spouse, divorce, loss of job and other painful experiences.  Interestly it also includes events such as marriage and pregnancy or outstanding personal achievement which are generally thought of as happy experiences.  Yet these are experiences that may require us to change our habits, our ways of relating to people, or our self-images. They may be positive changes, but they may demand a great deal of introspection and may even cause unresolved emotional conflicts to surface.  

This list is by no means complete.  It doesn’t included betrayal by a close friend or family member, it doesn’t include a break up of a long term relationship whether with a partner or close friend, it doesn’t include caring for an ill family member, or dealing with the estate of a deceased family member.  It also doesn’t address quiet desperation which is when we don’t deal with our emotional needs and instead allow them to build up.  Staying at a job you hate, in a bad relationship, things we rationalize because of security and love. Lack of an emotional outlet can be common theme for many chronically ill people.  It creates its own stress.

This list gives you a good starting point for recognizing stress within your life.  

For the next part of this you’ll need to know your total score.  Did everyone have a chance to tally their numbers?

A twelve month study indicated that people with total point scores in the top third of those who participated in the study reported 90 percent more illness than did people in the bottom third.  

Another twelve month study showed that 49 percent of people with total scores of over 300+ points would report an illness during the course of the study, while only 9% with scores below 200 points would report an illness.  

I don’t want this to stress you out!!  That isn’t the point of this discuss. Instead it’s understanding how important stress management is!  

It’s important to note that 51 percent of people with high scores did not fall ill.  While stress may predispose us to illness, the significant factor still seems to be how the individual copes with it.  The meaning of an event, even a stressful one, is construed differently from person to person. This is because stress comes mainly from our interpretation of events.  

A personal example is  my struggle last summer as many people around me with cancer died.  It caused a great deal of stress for me until I realized that I was doing everything different than they did.  There deaths did not mean my immediate or even eventual demise from cancer. Instead they confirmed many of the beliefs I already held.   

The explanation put forth by Dr. Holmes and his associates is that the activity of coping can lower resistance to disease, particularly when one’s coping techniques are faulty: when they lack relevance to the problems to be solved.  This approach to illness is a lesson in human finitude [reminding] us that we have only so much energy, no more.  If it takes too much effort with the environment, we have less to spare for preventing disease. When life is too hectic, and when coping attempts fail, illness is the unhappy result.  

Still how does this actually contribute to illness?  The human nervous system is the product of millions of years of years of evolution.  For most human existence the demands placed on the nervous system were different then modern culture.  Survival in primitive society required that we be able to recognize threats and make immediate decisions to fight or flight. The nervous system senses an external threat and our bodies are instantly primed via an exchange of hormonal balances either to fight or flee.  

Now in modern society we are required to constantly inhibit our fight or flight response.  When a policeman stops you and gives you a speeding ticket, when your being criticized by your boss, a car honks surprising you, waiting in a long line, dealing with large crowds of people…  in all of these circumstances fighting or fleeing would be socially inappropriate so you’ve learned to override your reaction.

The body is designed so that moments of stress, followed by a physical reaction such as fighting or fleeing, do little harm.  However the physiological response to stress that isn’t discharged has a negative cumulative effect on the body. This is chronic stress… stress that is held in the body and not released.  Chronic stress is increasingly being recognized as playing a significant role in many illnesses.

What does chronic stress do to our bodies?  It frequently produces hormonal imbalances. Since hormones play a critical role in regulating body function this means that it can affect any number of areas in our bodies.  Connections have been made to our blood pressure, kidneys, coronary failure, thyroid issues, and suppression of the immune system and this list is by no mean extensive.

This is why learning healthy ways to cope is so important and especially for an ill person.

From my personal experience, up until a few years ago, my coping techniques were faulty.  My first, was to smoke cigarettes. If I became stressed I would disconnect from the situation by going to smoke.  While on a psychological level I might have found some release, it was a very harmful coping mechanism. The act of smoking lowers our immune system.  It doesn’t require that I deal with whatever has me stressed. If anything it enable my ability to take whatever emotions I was feelings and push them down deep inside of me to be ignored.  This was just one of my coping mechanisms. I’d like to think one of the most unhealthy, but even there, that thinking tells you that a majority of my coping was unhealthy. I rated them from unhealthy to REALLY unhealthy.  

As I learned more about healing, health, and wellness I started replacing my coping mechanisms.  I no longer smoke… instead I using deep breathing and meditation. This allows me to achieve the relaxation response.  It is the opposite of fight or flight response.  

The physiological process of relieving the stress reaction is known as the relaxation response.  It’s obtainable at a state of deep relaxation.

It’s important to find ways of coping that allow you to release stress in a way that you enjoy.  If your coping tools come with their own stresses then it defeats the purpose. The relaxation response that you are trying to achieve doesn’t happen during an activity that stresses you out.  

This leads us to stress management techniques.  

Some of the techniques that I have used….

Happiness is healing.  Joyful activities on a daily basis.  This may be taking time to play with my dog.  It may mean I spend 15 minutes watching puppy videos.  It might mean I watch a comedy routine or a funny movie.  Laughter creates nitric oxide in our bodies. Nitric oxide relaxes our blood vessels and allows for an increase in oxygen and blood flow through out our body.  Nitric oxide enables our ability to heal. Studies have shown that people who are ill have a reduced level of nitric oxide. Lifestyle and diet reduce our ability to create nitric oxide.  Laughter, sex, fruit, veggies, whole grains – plant based foods, these increase our ability to generate nitric oxide. Nitric oxide would be a part of our relaxation response. We want to trigger the release of as much nitric oxide in our bodies as possible.  Playing a game with family or friends can allow you to relax and create nitric oxide as you laugh and enjoy each other’s company.

Regular meditation helps to reduce your physiological age, making it much lower than your chronological age.  This means that your body may act like it is 35 when you are 50. Meditation allows us to relax. There are many types of meditation – you can focus on your breathing, or you can do guide meditations, there is also equipment such as a sound and light machine.  What method works best for you will depend on your own personal preferences. If sound and light is overwhelming to you then using a sound and light machine wouldn’t be advisable. If you have a hard time with silence than a guided meditation may be a better option for you.  Regular meditation is a daily activity. Best results have been found when you devote 45 minutes to a hour of your time to meditation practices. This may seem like too much at first. If needed start with smaller increments and increase as you go. Many people find that once they start including this daily practice increasing the time spent in meditation comes naturally.  

Listening to calming music.  Largo (slow) movements of baroque (classical) instrumental music with bass line rhythm of 60 beats per minute can cause the listeners heart to synchronizes and produce a deep relaxation after a few minutes.  While studies have been done on this specific music, if there are certain songs or types of music that bring you peace then listen to them!

Taking time to care for yourself… a long warm bath, or a massage can help you relieve stress and relax.  Reading a good book or coloring is another way to allow your body to relax. Take a nap or spend time browsing through magazines or entertainment.  Painting or some other activity that lets you be creative in a way you enjoy.

Exercise or moving in a way you enjoy… Movement is important, but again it needs to be in a way you enjoy.  If you hate lifting weights in the gym – don’t do it! Going for a walk in nature or riding a bike may be your activity of choice.  You may prefer yoga or tai chi, and you might want to do it in your own home instead of at a studio. The key here is to find a way to move and release energy trapped in your body in a way you enjoy.  

Spending time in nature has been proven to reduce our level of stress hormones.  If you don’t have the ability to walk far, finding a quiet place to sit and enjoy sunshine, the birds, the sound of the wind, will still allow you to take advantage of the healing properties of nature.

Float Therapy or Sensory Deprivation Tanks  are another option. Initial research shows it shuts down the part of your brain responsible for fight or flight.  This makes sense as your brain doesn’t have any stimuli triggering your fight or flight response. There are a number of spas around here that offer this service.  A quick google search will locate the facility nearest to you. Don’t forget to check groupon! Often they will have deals for services like float tanks.

Free Writing is another good coping mechanism.  Free writing is writing without a specific purpose to find what’s hidden inside of you.  

Some prompts would be:  

I wish I could tell my doctor, spouse, parent, sibling, friend…

After researching options I think

Waking at 3 am I…

Imagine yourself talking to a dear friend and what you’d say to them

To take this a step further; James W Pennebaker research into expressive writing found that “translating events into language can affect brain and immune function”.  People who wrote about their deepest thoughts and feelings surrounding a trauma evidenced an impressive drop in illness visit after the study compared to other groups.  You can do the same – write about facts and your emotional reaction to them. If your doctor has upset you, write the facts of the event and then go onto write about your emotional reaction to them.  Did you find yourself so angry your hands shook, or did you find yourself so disappointed that you felt hopeless?

Emotional release can also come from writing a poem or a short story about whatever event.  

Note – some people can have resistance to writing.  They feel they cannot write. This is generally caused by a bad experience with feedback and not because they lack the ability.  Regardless of whether you feel you can write or not, you do not have to show this to anyone, it’s just another tool to remove stress energy that would otherwise remain in your body reeking havoc.  

Much of stress comes from how we perceive events.  Learning how to handle your emotions and focus your thoughts will help you reduce and manage stress.  In the future we’ll discuss these two topics as they each deserve their own in depth discussion. For the purpose of this discussion though, it’s important to keep perspective within your life.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed, but it’s within our power to remove many stressors from our life.

I’d like to take the remaining time to discuss the different stressors in our lives and how we manage them.  I’d like us to share the different techniques we use to relieve stress within our lives. The goal is to leave here today with new ideas to help us manage the stress we find in our lives.  


This groups Healing Hero is Joe Dispenza.  

Researcher and Chiropractor Joe Dispenza, of Olympia, Washington, knows the value of the placebo effect from personal experience. When his spine shattered during a 1986 triathlon race as his bicycle was hit by an SUV, he had a good mental picture of what had happened. Consulting doctors proclaimed a bleak prognosis and offered a risky surgical procedure as his only chance of walking again.

He left the hospital against the advice of his physicians and spent the next three months mentally—and physically—reconstructing his spine. His story is one of hope for healing for others, detailed in his latest book, You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter.

How did your pivotal healing take place?

For two hours twice a day, I went within and began creating a picture of my intended result: a totally healed spine. Nine-and-a-half weeks after the accident, I got up and walked back into my life fully recovered—without having had a body cast or surgeries. I resumed my chiropractic practice 10 weeks out and was training and lifting weights again while continuing my rehabilitation regimen at 12 weeks. Now, in the nearly 30 years since the accident, I can honestly say that I rarely experience any back pain.

You can read the whole article from Natural Awakenings here:  


I also recommend his book:   You Are the Placebo:  Making Your Mind Matter