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The power of perception: Mimi Hernandez shares how shooing away stress can mean a healthier you.


Stress has a severe impact on our health and well-being. It's not just mental; it actually has an effect on the physiological processes of the body and is now recognized as being associated with an increased prevalence of heart disease, cancer, impaired immunity, high Blood pressure, skin disorders, inflammation, obesity and reproductive issues such as infertility, early menopause and loss of libido. Let's face it, anything that tends to flare up does so more readily when we're under stress. Think about it ... cold sores, shingles, rashes, body aches, dental issues, Boils, insomnia, colds, etc.

Stress is a hormonal reaction that can take one of two pathways. These pathways travel along what scientists term the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary, adrenal axis.) Acute stress, or "fight or flight," is dominated By adrenaline excess, and later deficiency, while chronic stress is dominated by cortisol output. Both of these are a result of signals traveling from the brain to the adrenal glands via the HPA axis.

Historically, stress has served as a survival tool. Adrenaline, for instance, diverts blood flow from the digestive and reproductive organs toward the heart and skeletal muscle tissue, improving capacity for running from life-threatening events. Adrenaline also constricts the Blood vessels, allowing the body to retain blood in case it's bitten or injured. This is useful to us if in fact we're running from a vicious predator, but when we respond this way each morning to say backed-up traffic, these daily hormonal surges can take a toil on our body.

In essence, if you stress out on your morning commute, you divert Blood flow from your body's digestive and reproductive processes. And that's when you're more likely to develop digestive maladies such as ulcers and reproductive challenges such as erectile dysfunction. Also with a stressful response to traffic, your blood vessels constrict and create high blood pressure, a risk factor for heart disease, atherosclerosis and stroke. All the while, you're sitting in traffic with an influx of blood flow in your muscles and you're not running. It's no wonder that exercise plays such a fabulous rob in Clearing stress from the body: it's part of instinctual stress resolution!

But many of us don't release stress, so it becomes chronic. As you'll remember from earlier, chronic stress is dominated by cortisol output. Cortisol is a natural anti-inflammatory that enhances survival when we're injured. However, Because cortisol affects Blood sugar regulation, one of the dominant features of chronic cortisol release is an increase in cravings for comfort foods and sweets, resulting in an increased risk for developing diabetes and the much-dreaded belly fat. Cortisol is originally designed to come out in bursts, do its job quickly, and then accumulate for the next challenge. In the face of chronic stress many feel today, however, the continual output of cortisol has the potential to "burn out" the adrenals. Our adrenal glands simply cannot keep pumping this stuff out (especially if we lack the nutritiously dense diets of our ancestors that kept the adrenals well fed!). "Burnt out" adrenals can't make adequate amounts of cortisol, which results in depletion of the important anti-inflammatory substance. This is when everything that flares up will do so. Imagine the pain of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome, both of which are associated with tired adrenals.

This is where the power of perception comes in. Is your cup half-empty or half-full? While some might see this as just that old silly question, your answer really can determine the level of your well-being and quality of health.

Stress research pioneer Sheldon Cohen says, "stress increases your risk of developing disease, but it doesn't mean that just because you're exposed to stressful events, you're going to get sick." Thus, most stress research today is centered around the concept of "perceived stress."

What triggers the hypothalamus into stress response? I like to view it as a little red flag that comes up when we perceive something as dangerous or as a threat. Usually this trigger happens instantly, habitually and even addictively (how many of you are addicted to the stress of chronically being late?). And this red flag trigger is usually based on previous experiences from our childhood that have shaped our beliefs and our fears. More irrational reactions may even be based on ancestral fears or, according to some belief systems, past life traumas.

But if we practice awareness and mindfulness and put ourselves in a place of actively observing our "little red flag" reactions without judgment, there's so much we can learn about our own fears and Beliefs. Are those beliefs self-limiting? Do those fears really apply to the present situation, or are they based on a former reality? We can then literally empower ourselves to see things in a different light. Being conscious is key. In other words, are you a slave to your reactions, or are you willing to step back and actively play a role in reframing your experiences? You can create your own reality with your outlook.

Perhaps Michele Rosenthal, founder of www .healmyptsd.eom put it Best when she wrote, "The truth is, events themselves don't have any power-it's the meaning and interpretation we give them that makes them become what they are. Two people can go through the same experience and come out of it with differing accounts."

Let's imagine two men in traffic. The first man is desperately honking his horn at his fellow drivers while his veins pop out with rage. The second is noticing the emerging leaves on the trees and putting in a CD of pleasant tunes, Because he knows his reactions will not change the fact that he's stuck in traffic. The second man has effectively chosen not to raise that little red flag and has instead decided to wave the little white flag of surrender to the moment. He has spared his body of the detrimental side effects of stress. If he embraces this outlook and makes this his new habit, he's more likely to enjoy health and well-being. It's his choice, and it's your choice as well!

Sources: "Psychological Stress and Disease" by S. Cohen, D. Janicki-Deverts and G. Miller, JAMA, October 2007; Stop the Stress Habit: Change Your Perceptions and Improve Your Health by Dr. Leslie Torburn; Adrenaline and Stress/The Exciting New Breakthrough That Helps You Overcome Stress Damage by Dr. Archibald Hart

Natural Support for De-Stressing

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see everything as it is ... infinite."--William Blake

Herbs to minimize "fight or flight" responses:

Lavender or clary sage aromatherapy

Rescue remedy or flower essence drops


Blue vervain



Lemon balm

California poppy

Herbs to support cortisol balance:

Holy basil



Resihi mushroom

Schisandra berry


Nourishing strategies for adrenal support:

Meditation, Qigong and yoga

Seaweeds and nettles


Essential fatty acids

Antioxidants and brightly colored foods

Playtime and laughter

Time in nature

Mimi Hernandez, MS RH (AHG), is a recovering stress addict, overachiever, Type A personality, and mother of two. She is also an herbal medicine educator and clinical herbalist who has expanded her teachings and practice to encompass consciousness studies and mindfulness. She is the director of One World Healing Arts Institute in West Asheville and much of her work can be found at
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Author:Hernandez, Mimi
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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