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The Causes and Effects of Stress Illnesses: The Cortisol Connection

The Vicious Cycle of Stress

What is the source of your stress? Of mine? Of the world’s? Your job, boyfriend, or ex-wife? The current financial/economic crisis, global pollution, or the lack of trustworthy friends? Really, think about it!  You can learn how to heal yourself!

It is natural to perceive the effects of stress as coming from the external world. Wrong! This becomes clear the moment you really think about it: the cause of stress is within you. Our stress comes from us, not the outside world. And it is for this reason that we fail to see the actual mechanism that causes stress, and thus we end up treating only the symptoms of stress — kind of like putting makeup on to cover acne or smallpox.

Stressed Man on Cellphone Image

Stress is, by definition, a mental, physical, and emotional expression of unresolved polarity and conflict in the mind and nervous system. If you fully understand the causes of the stress you feel, its toxic effects on the organs of your body, and the limitations it places on your efficiency and effectiveness, then you are well on the way to being able to do something about it.

Stuff happens. An important flight is canceled. You are suddenly laid off and you have no savings. You begin to think that your boyfriend, wife, or business partner is cheating on you. These causes and effects of stress create an imbalance within or cognitive dissonance. You want to feel safe and free to relax and enjoy yourself, but you can’t. You have an inner conflict; you can feel it as tension in your body and in your emotions. What you are feeling are the side effects of stress. The cause is the conflict within you, not the event that triggered it.

If there are many causes of stress in your life and/or they are continuous and persistent, the accumulation of stress will, in time, produce illness and dysfunction. This, in turn, triggers more stress; a vicious cycle is created, and the chemicals released by the glands of your body begin to erode and inflame your organs. In a very real sense, stress is internal friction that disrupts the system and that, when chronically unresolved, leads to deterioration and degeneration of the entire body.

Cortisol and Other Stress Chemicals

Chemically, this internal friction is the result of the cortisol, prostaglandins, and other chemicals secreted by the adrenals and other glands of the body. Your levels of testosterone, DHEA and growth hormone decrease and the body begins to store fat. At the same time, these chemicals and effects of stress cause muscle loss, a decreased metabolic rate, and elevated blood pressure (hypertension). Further, it causes tissue breakdown in organs all over the body. You develop Metabolic Syndrome.  Symptoms eventually show up in your “weakest-link” organ.

The stress reaction may be triggered by both external and internal factors. Your physical environment, including your living situation, your job, your interpersonal relationships and the various obstacles, challenges, expectations, and assumptions all contribute, externally, to the demands you perceive. Internal factors, such as a poor self-image, feeling unloved, low self-esteem, or strong emotions may also trigger the symptoms and effects of stress on the body.

Clearly, not only your health, but your ability to continue to perform, work, create, and care is dependent upon how well you manage your stress, maintain a high level of wellness and internal balance (getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, eating nutritiously, taking time for emotional fulfillment, etc.).

Accumulated Stress —The Real Culprit

There are two phases to the natural stress cycle, and they must be in balance if we are to function well and safely. Brief periods of stress alternating with periods of relaxation create a healthy balance, where the stress is actually beneficial (eustress). On the other hand, ongoing stress without the balance of the recovery phase leads to an accumulation of stress chemicals and their effects on the tissues of the body, which creates ever-worsening illness and dysfunction.

Stress Related Diseases ImageOngoing demands thus trigger continuous over-secretion of these chemicals, which in turn causes physical damage, first at a microscopic level (where we can only detect the results from lab tests), then later, as the damage grows, it impacts us at a more macro level. Eventually, the results of the stress reaction emerge into our conscious awareness, and we experience the symptoms of stress – we get a headache, a spastic colon, a rash, or a backache. Moreover, symptoms of stress appear not only at the physical level, and in some people, the dominant symptoms are emotional responses and anxiety, panic reactions, depression, low motivation, anger, rage, embarrassment, and frustration.

Diseases Caused or Exacerbated by Stress

Here are just a few of those diseases that current research shows are “strongly stress-related,” – that is, stress either causes these symptoms or is a major factor in making them worse:

  • Heart diseases
  • autoimmune disorders
  • slow wound healing
  • irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • major depression
  • generalized anxiety
  • panic disorder
  • high blood pressure
  • chronic infection
  • obesity
  • fibromyalgia
  • eating disorders
  • diabetes
  • insomnia
  • headaches
  • ulcers
  • poor memory
  • and lower resistance to infections etc.

The Natural History of the Stress Response

The stress response is a natural reaction of the body that developed over millions of years of evolution. All animals have a similar reaction when they feel unsafe. If you think you are being attacked by something too big for you to protect yourself from — a bully from the local bar, the IRS, the thought of speaking up in public, a foreclosure on your house — your body will react by tensing its muscles, increasing its heart rate and cortisol production, shortening the clotting time of the blood, raising your blood pressure, and shunting blood flow from digestion into muscles, among other things. In other words, when under stress, the body acts like it’s being chased by a bear.

This stress reaction (called “fight or flight” by psychologists) is one that would have helped us when we were still living in the trees, or on the plains of Africa.  It is of no use in modern-day society. Whether the cause of stress is the global economy or global warming, an oppressive government or unkind parent, a high-pressure job or no job –  physical and emotional fight or flight reactions do not help us deal with the issue at hand.

Furthermore, in today’s world, there isn’t any stress relief from employing a fight or flight reaction. In fact, we are left with an inner conflict that creates even more stress. Not only did the situation not get better because we got angry with it, or broke down in tears, or ran away in fear; it got worse. And with that worsening, even more, cortisol is secreted.

Stress and the Unconscious Mind Image

The Role of the Unconscious Mind in Stress

If your conscious or unconscious mind believes you are facing a demand to which you have to respond, (even if you are mistaken!), that thought stimulates a certain neural network, which sends specific patterns of nervous impulses throughout the body and brain. It also causes the glands in the body to multiply the amount of their secretions. Your hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for emotions such as frustration and anxiety, sends messages down to your pituitary gland (the “master gland”) that instructs the adrenal glands to secrete chemicals, including the highly corrosive chemical cortisol.

The Role of our Stressful Social Environment

In the environment into which humans evolved, our main cause of stress had a clear source, they were brief in duration, and there were specific maneuvers we used to solve our challenges. We could run, cover up and hide, attack, etc., and this would save our lives. Then it was over. Then we would relax (recovery phase) and tell somebody about our exciting encounter. Or we would be dead. No worries, no cortisol.


Because the main effects of stress today are not short-lived, we end up being under constant stress. If we do not find a way to rebalance the mind, body, emotions, and spirit, this inner stress will accumulate the way the rain waters in New Orleans’ levees accumulated and broke under Hurricane Katrina’s surge. The body is not designed to handle extensive build-up of the chemicals of stress. This long-term activation of the stress response without periods of relaxation to balance (return to homeostasis) and heal leads to an overtaxed system that feels both overstimulated and depleted at the same time.

The Key to Stress Management

Stress Management Techniques from Dr. Miller Image

Because accumulated stress is the major cause of human illness and unhappiness; what is crucial to surviving in today’s world is a reliable way to relieve stress on an ongoing basis. The most effective ways to manage stress involve the use of mind tools such as deep relaxation, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, and meditation.

Stress management tools enable us to re-balance and heal our system, preventing the breakdown of our most vulnerable organ systems which shows up as an acute or chronic illness or dysfunction.

It is most important to recall that, since stress is only one half of a two-phase process – the other half of which is relaxation – we need an efficient and effective way to provide this on a regular basis. After all, stress comes on a regular basis!

The Power of Now

Again the answer lies in the here-and-now, in the present moment. Learn to accept the reality and the truth of what is here and now. During this time of acceptance and serenity, your body begins to neutralize the accumulated stress – by metabolizing the stress chemicals, digesting them as if they were food. The deeper the state of relaxation, the more quickly the stress chemicals dissipate, and the mind frees itself from the obsessions that created the imbalance in the first place.

Stress Tips for Meeting the Relaxation Challenge

Yes, it is hard in this constantly challenging world to learn to stop resisting and to feel at peace. But it need not be difficult or painful to deal with stress effectively.

Dr. Miller’s goal has been to develop techniques (Software for the Mind) that create Deep Relaxation, the direct antidote to stress. His guided imagery experiences are perfect for supplying the missing phase of the stress response. Because these experiences produce a series of thoughts and images carefully sequenced to create a stress-eating, stress-dissolving state of mind and being, they enable you to:

      • focus on the present moment,
      • realize that the source of all suffering is wanting things to be different from how they are at this moment,
      • and accept the world as it is at this moment.

Suggested Guided Imagery, Meditation & Self-Hypnosis Programs:

Balance, Stress, and Optimal Health

Balance, Stress, and Optimal Health Suite

Stress management is simple, but not easy. Maturation in any person’s life comes with an awareness of the importance of being able to accept that which cannot be changed. Likewise, the kind of personal growth that leads to the development of patience, courage, and compassion (including for yourself) leads to the kinds of beliefs and attitudes that are ideal for relieving and managing stress. As you read on, you will learn how you can, with this acceptance and wise guidance, actually harness stress and turn your “obstacles” into stimulating challenges and golden opportunities.

Dr. Miller has integrated a number of effective techniques to help enable you to do this, he calls them Mind Tools. All these can help you attain the peaceful states of serenity and complete stress relief.