Stress Kills – Don’t Allow it

posted in: Recent, Stage 3, Stage 3: Step 1

Each of us has been given a profound gift – life. The meaning of life has been the focus of endless philosophical discussions ranging from life having no meaning to being connected to each other and the universe through deep spiritual bonds. However, the bigger question is what is the meaning of your life? Why are you here? What is your purpose? What do you wish this journey to be? What experiences are you looking for? In other words, what is important to you and what do you want? In the big picture, we all have manydreams, but we seldom attain even a fraction of them. What happened?

Here is a famous quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez.1

It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old.

They grow old because they stop pursuing their dreams.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

This is a wonderful quote except I have a different take on it.

People grow old because their dreams are crushed by anxiety.


Stress is the sum total of the obstacles we face every minute to stay alive. When your body is in a flight or fight state, the sensation is called “anxiety.” This reaction is present in every living species, but humans have language and can name it. It is challenging to achieve your dreams and experience the life you wish while feeling stressed. Your creativity and choice are compromised while you are in a survival mode; the blood flow in your brain shifts from the neocortex (thinking centers) to the limbic system (flight or fight).

The Holmes scale2, developed in the 1960s, quantifies levels of stress connected with life events, and you can calculate your own cumulative score. A score of 300 points or more correlates to an 80% chance of a health breakdown within 24 months. In spite of overwhelming data connecting chronic stress with illness, disease, and early mortality, we are generally taught that stress and anxiety are “psychological” issues. Nothing could be further from reality. Why does chronic stress cause mental and physical illnesses?

One of my close friends and colleagues were discussing the role of stress leading to health problems and we decided to assess ourselves with Holmes scale. He had been dealing with an unspeakable number of challenges for several years. His score was 435 and then he told me that he had been diagnosed with cancer a few months earlier. Fortunately, he did well with treatment.


We want to feel safe. In this state our body’s chemistry consists of anti-inflammatory molecules called cytokines. Fuel consumption is lowered (metabolism). There are about 80 billion neurons in your brain that communicate by molecules called neurotransmitters. When feeling safe, these molecules are calming. Hormones include dopamine (reward), serotonin (mood elevator), growth hormone, and oxytocin (social bonding). Emotions represent feelings generated by your physiological state (how the body functions) and safety creates a sense of connection, contentment, and joy. Another term describing this state is “rest and digest.” Your body must refuel, regenerate, and heal in order to sustain life and health.


What happens when you don’t feel safe? Your body goes into various levels of threat physiology (flight or fight) to optimize survival. It is designed to deal with acute threats effectively and quickly, but it doesn’t do well when your challenges are unrelenting. At the core of all chronic mental and physical disease is being in a sustained stressed state.3 Here is what is going on.



Activated inflammatory cytokines fire up your immune system. In addition to fighting off viruses, bacteria, and other foreign materials, your own tissues are attacked.4 Neurotransmitters switch from calming to excitatory and your nervous system is hyperactive. Fuel is consumed from every cell in your body, including your brain. Chronic disease states cause physical shrinkage of your brain.5 Fortunately, it regrows as you heal. Stress hormones include adrenaline, noradrenaline, histamines, and vasopressin, which shift your body from thinking to fleeing. This situation can be likened to driving your car down the freeway at 65 mph in second gear. It will break down more quickly than if you are cruising in 5th gear.

The driving force behind chronic mental and physical disease is sustained exposure to stress physiology. The solution lies in using approaches to increase “cues of safety” and allow your body to rest and regenerate whenever you can.

Dynamic Healing

Sustained stress translates into threat physiology, which creates symptoms. In mainstream medicine, we are just treating symptoms instead of addressing the root cause being the interaction between your stresses and nervous system. We don’t have time to know you, understand the nature of your circumstances, or how we can help you calm down. Treating only symptoms is similar to putting out an oil well fire with a garden hose. It is no wonder that the burden of chronic disease and suffering continues to skyrocket.6 In fact, you often feel more stressed while interacting with the medical system. We introduce the concept of “dynamic healing.

Dynamic Healing is a framework that categorizes interventions that decrease exposure to threat and increase safety. The three portals are:

  • Input – processing your stresses in a manner to have less impact on your nervous system
  • The nervous system – there are ways to lower its reactivity
  • The output – directly stimulating your body to go from stress to calming physiology.

This model organizes known research to both clinicians and patients. You can regain control of your care and create a partnership with your provider.

Why not become a “professional” at living life?

Consider the process as becoming a “professional at living life.” It is similar to acquiring any skill such as playing the piano. You must learn the basics, incorporate them into your daily life, and then continue to deepen your expertise with practice. Mastery is critical, and as they become habituated and automatic, life becomes easier to navigate.



Additionally, the power of neuroplasticity (changing your brain) is powerful and unlimited. You can program your brain in whichever direction you wish, away from unpleasant survival circuits.

Modern stresses

Times have changed since 1962 regarding the Holmes-Rahe scale. The industrial revolution occurred only about 200 years ago. In light of over four billion years of evolution, this not even a drop of water in the ocean. The level of daily sensory input dramatically increased. Now we are in the information revolution that began in 1980’s forcing us to process magnitudes more information. Smart phones came online in 2007, and along with the barrage of social media, we are on a massive sensory overload. The human brain has not evolved to keep up with it. So, we have ongoing stress levels that weren’t present even several hundred years ago. It is somewhat perverse that we have so many anxiety-related problems when we have access to more physical comforts than any generation in history. One fallout is that of teen suicide, “deaths of despair”, have risen dramatically correlating with the advent of the bi-directional smart phone.7

A healing sequence

The DOC (Direct your Own Care) Journey course teaches skills to optimize your capacity to enjoy life by effectively dealing with adversity and nurturing joy. These are two separate, but linked, skill sets. As you lower your time feeling stressed and increase your sense of safety and joy, your body will regenerate and heal – mentally and physically. Your brain physically changes (neuroplasticity), pleasurable circuits strengthen, and pain (mental and physical) regions atrophy. You can reprogram your brain away from almost anything with persistence and repetition. The exciting aspect of neuroplasticity is that at some tipping point, your healing continues to build on itself and there is no limit as to what life (brain) you wish to create.

What do want out of this life? Decrease your exposure to threat physiology, increase time in safety, enjoy your life, heal, and thrive.




  1. Take the Holmes-Rahe stress assessment test.
  2. Write down the details of each category affecting your life.
  3. Consider what percent of your time you spend fighting off stresses compared to nurturing joy. Where is your brain developing?
  4. The most stressful stresses are the ones you can’t solve. It is why you must learn techniques to minimize their impact, calm your nervous system, and spend less time exposed to threat physiology.
  5. What is one aspect of your life that is the most important to you? Write it down. Are you willing to pursue it?
  6. Your body is a complex powerful survival machine. It has evolved to seek safety, deal with threats, break loose, and thrive. Allow it to do its job.


  1. Gabriel García Márquez. Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude. 1967. Editorial Sudamericanos, S.A., Buenos Aires.
  2. Holmes TH, Rahe RH. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale.J Psychosom Res (1967); 11:213–8. doi:1016/0022-3999(67)90010-4
  3. Furman D, et al. Chronic Inflammation in the etiology of diseases across the life span. Nature Medicine (2019); 25:1822-1832.
  4. Cole SW, et al. Social Regulation of gene expression in human leukocytes. Genome Biology (2007); 8:R189. doi: 10.1186/gb-2007-8-9-r189
  5. Seminowicz DA, et al. “Effective treatment of chronic low back pain in humans reverses abnormal brain anatomy and function.” The Journal of Neuroscience (2011); 31: 7540-7550.
  6. Bezruchka S. Increasing Mortality and Declining Health Status in the USA: Where is Public Health?Harvard Health Policy Review [internet]. 2018.
  7. Miron O, et al. Suicide rates among adolescents and young adults in the United States, 2000-2017. JAMA (2019); 321: 2362. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5054 – Connection with cell phones made by Dr. Rob Lustig lecture on 12.1.21 –