Are You Over-Stressed or Under-Recuperated?

Deal­ing with stress is a uni­ver­sal fact of mod­ern life. It comes at you from every direc­tion – at work, when com­mut­ing, and from fam­i­ly and social rela­tion­ships. Even when you try to sleep you’re bat­tling the stress of noise and light pol­lu­tion.

Han­dle stress effec­tive­ly and life is enjoy­able and excit­ing. Plus your health gets a big boost.

In con­trast, an inef­fec­tive stress response leads to low mood, loss of zest for life, a sup­pressed immune sys­tem, and a host of oth­er health woes.

Many experts believe that unre­lent­ing stress is the major cause of today’s epi­dem­ic of chron­ic dis­eases – every­thing from heart dis­ease to can­cer to depres­sion. That’s why health gurus from A to Z rec­om­mend “stress reduc­tion” and “stress man­age­ment” meth­ods to dial down the stress vol­ume.

Most of these meth­ods are effec­tive if you fol­low through with them. But not nec­es­sar­i­ly as effec­tive as they could be. That’s because they’re not always based on under­stand­ing the fun­da­men­tal phys­i­ol­o­gy of the stress response.

Two Secrets to Developing an Effective Stress Response

1. Stress Is an Inside Job

An exter­nal stres­sor doesn’t begin to take its toll on your body until your inter­nal con­trol mech­a­nisms – your ner­vous sys­tem and endocrine sys­tem – kick into gear.

The abil­i­ty to mount a stress response is vital to human sur­vival.  With­out a robust stress response your cave-per­son ances­tors couldn’t have fled from a rag­ing for­est fire or kept a step ahead of a charg­ing rhi­no. Because these stress respons­es are so impor­tant evo­lu­tion has auto­mat­ed them – they occur below the lev­el of con­scious aware­ness.

No mat­ter how per­fect­ly you try to con­trol your out­side envi­ron­ment — even if you’re liv­ing on the beach with plen­ty of coconuts to eat and wait­ers ready to refill your pina cola­da glass the instant you fin­ish it off – your inter­nal stress respons­es may be pro­grammed to pro­pel you into high alert based on the slight­est provo­ca­tion.

Even if you prac­tice men­tal exer­cis­es such as med­i­ta­tion, deep breath­ing, or con­scious relax­ation, your efforts can only try to tamp down a stress reac­tion that’s already occurred on autopi­lot.

So the first secret to an effec­tive stress response is to retrain your inter­nal con­trols so they auto­mat­i­cal­ly respond more appro­pri­ate­ly with­out you hav­ing to even think about it.

2. Too Much Hot Water Or Too Little Cold?

Here’s the sec­ond secret to an effec­tive stress response: Your inter­nal stress response is not reg­u­lat­ed by a sin­gle vol­ume con­trol. Rough­ly speak­ing, your stress response has two vol­ume con­trollers.

Imag­ine you’re tak­ing a leisure­ly show­er when sud­den­ly the water becomes scald­ing hot. Do you reach for the hot water knob to turn it down or the cold water knob to turn it up? Or both at the same time?

Your stress response works the same way as your show­er.

One part of your ner­vous sys­tem – the sym­pa­thet­ic sys­tem – helps you to run, fight, and spot quick­ly mov­ing shad­ows in the for­est. Anoth­er part – your parasym­pa­thet­ic sys­tem – helps you heal, recu­per­ate, absorb nutri­ents, and rebuild your body. (Your endocrine and immune sys­tems also kick in to sup­port the actions of these two branch­es of your ner­vous sys­tem.)

You need both parts to work in har­mo­ny. But if you’re deal­ing poor­ly with stress, the prob­lem could have two caus­es: too much sym­pa­thet­ic stim­u­la­tion or too lit­tle parasym­pa­thet­ic. Or both. It can be hard to tell if your fight or flight reac­tion is too robust or if your rest and repair mech­a­nism is too deplet­ed.

Heart Rate Variability – The Most Important Diagnostic Test You’ve Never Heard Of

For­tu­nate­ly, there’s a diag­nos­tic test that can tell if you need less hot water or more cold. It’s a test for heart rate vari­abil­i­ty.

The sym­pa­thet­ic and parasym­pa­thet­ic branch­es of your ner­vous sys­tem orches­trate sub­tle vari­a­tions in your heart rate through­out the day based on your lev­el of activ­i­ty, emo­tion­al state, and oth­er fac­tors.

In gen­er­al, your parasym­pa­thet­ic sys­tems slows down your heart and your sym­pa­thet­ics speed it up.  But each exerts its influ­ence with a char­ac­ter­is­tic rhythms.

If you have your heart rate vari­abil­i­ty ana­lyzed, both at rest and also when per­form­ing basic activ­i­ties (such as quick­ly ris­ing from a chair) the data can show the source of your prob­lem.

Then you can for­mu­late a plan to rebal­ance your sys­tems and improve your body’s stress response.


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More on heart rate vari­abil­i­ty



About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website,, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at or at 212-400-9663.

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