If you missed Part 1, check that out first.
It should come as no surprise that Americans are stressed out more than ever before with mental illness being reported in 59 million Americans in 2020. That’s over 20% of the population. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 1 in 6 youth between 6-17 yrs experience mental illness. People with mental illness have a 40% greater chance of developing cardiovascular diseases, and 32% more likely to develop substance abuse issues. 1 out of every 8 emergency room visits is mental health-related. The suicide rate has risen 35% since 1999 and 46% of suicide deaths also had mental health issues.
Apart from the heart-wrenching familial and social impact, mental health issues cost 193 billion in lost productivity. Mental health is not just about physical health, it also has an economic impact. To go down the rabbit hole of mental health-related statistics visit the National Alliance of Mental Illness.
Across the American populace, the number of people who describe themselves as “very happy” has dropped 60% in the last 60 years. Americans were happier in the 50s which seems odd because we have so many luxuries and technology that our parents and grandparents could have only dreamed of, but we’re miserable, overweight, and sick. The average workweek has crept up to 50hrs a week which is higher than any European country yet despite the long work hours people are struggling to maintain the same standard of living they experienced growing up. SES or socio-economic stress is one of the most often cited stressors. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford a $500 emergency. Researchers have discovered that SES leads to higher levels of cortisol than other forms of stress. Cortisol is an important hormone we will talk about in a bit and while we need it to survive, like anything, too much of a good thing is a bad thing, a very, bad thing.
What is supposed to happen in our body when we encounter a stressor is our endocrine system fires up and releases cortisol which enables the fight or flight response, we deal with the threat, and all goes back to normal. Easy peasy. That’s how it’s supposed to work. In Robert Sapolsky’s book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, he uses the illustration of a zebra grazing peacefully on the savannah when all of the sudden a lion pounces out of the brush. The zebra immediately experiences a surge of adrenaline as its body is pumped full of cortisol that causes every other bodily process that isn’t needed for an escape to stop, the blood is pumped full of acids from the muscle and glucose from the liver giving the zebra ample power reserves, its heart begins to pound furiously as blood is pumped as quickly as possible through its body so he can run and leap and dodge the lion in attempt to make it to safety. Without cortisol, the zebra would go into shock and pass out. This is what happens in people with Addison’s disease… so cortisol really is good… for acute stress. But imagine if you lived in a state where cortisol was always high? Can you imagine the impact? See, zebras need to dodge the occasional lion, but zebras aren’t worried about the mortgage payment, the kid’s college fund, the stock market plummeting, and it’s not scrolling social media constantly receiving a barrage of negative news or being flooded with a view of everyone’s life which looks so much better than yours. And here’s the kicker, our body perceives all stress the same. Your body can’t tell the difference between the lion chasing you and your financial worries.
So what happens when cortisol is chronically elevated. Well, remember its purpose…It’s a trying to funnel all efforts toward survival, which is great in acute situations but when it’s doing that it is down-regulating other things, like reproduction, so when cortisol is high testosterone drops, blood pressure rises, blood sugar gets very difficult to manage and many times results in diabetes. Remember how I said when cortisol spikes it takes amino acids from the muscle and pushes it into the bloodstream? Again, great in a survival setting, but chronically this will lead to muscle loss which is only compounded by the fact that testosterone is lowering and blood sugar is getting harder to manage in the process. It’s a vicious cycle.
Now stress is a part of life so I am not going to preach that you need to remove all stress from your life because that is a fool’s errand and will simply lead you to stress out even more over the fact that you’re stressed about removing stress. Say that 5 times fast.
I feel really bad about painting such a bleak picture and leaving you hanging, but I will be writing about this topic over the coming weeks.