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  • Carlton Martin, Ph.D.

What is Killing Us?

Updated: Feb 9


Over the last 15 years there has been a significant increase in what some social scientists are calling “Death by Despair.” This so-called Death by Despair is describing the large number of Americans who are dying from preventable diseases, like suicide, drugs and alcohol overdose, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and strokes. These deaths have one thing in common, chronic high levels of stress.


Stress is the body’s natural response to changes, threats, and/or challenges inside the body and in the environment. The body produces a physiological, emotional, and cognitive response to stress. When changes occur in the body or in the environment, the nervous system responses by turning on the Sympathetic Division. This system is also called the “fight, flight, or freeze system." Once it’s turned on it releases adrenaline and cortisol into the blood stream, and immediately you can feel your heart beating faster, your muscles become tense, you might feel some discomfort in your stomach, some people begin to sweat. All this in preparation to fight off the threat, run away from the threat, or in some cases people freeze. During this period the frontal part of the brain (The Frontal Lobe) slows down, and becomes less efficient, and less useful. This is the part of the brain responsible for thinking, making good decisions, weighing consequences, planning for the future, and so on. If you are being chase by a tiger, you want your leg muscles, and the parts of the body associated with running fast to be well supplied with blood so you can out run the animal, and that is what the sympathetic division does.


This is the problem; this system was not designed to stay on permanently or it can do serious damage to the body. This is the case with children growing up in chronic poverty, an unstable home, homes where parents are constantly fighting, if you have a parent dealing with drugs and/or alcohol addiction, if you have a parent in prison, or is dealing with serious illness, or death. It can cause the brain to adjust in ways that can result in lower I.Qs; ADHD is also implicated here, and behavioral problems in children and adults. In adults it is associated with death from heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, excessive alcohol drinking, overdose death from painkillers, suicide, and the destructive list continues.


Luckily, the body has another system designed to turn the sympathetic division off after the threat, or challenge is over. This second system is called the Parasympathetic Division. This system is also called the “Rest and Digest” system. It works to return the body to normal functioning. It lowers the heart rate, it brings blood pressure down, it settles the stomach, and breathing is returned to normal. The person suddenly begins to feel hungry, or tired when this system comes on.


There are multiple things that we can do to trigger the Parasympathetic system to come on. In counseling a well-trained therapist can help the client recognize the changes in their bodies when the sympathetic system comes on teach them ways to trigger the Parasympathetic system to come on and calm the body down, returning it to normal functioning.


Things you can do to help combat stress:

  • Regular exercise – at least 30 minutes per day for 4/5 days a week. This is probably the most important thing you can do to help yourself.

  • Take time to unplug, and do something just for you.

  • Try to eat healthy each day. When we are stressed you are more likely to reach for sweet things to eat, the body is trying to quickly replenish the used energy. Do the opposite, and eat healthy foods.

  • Get regular and adequate amounts of sleep

  • Seek help early, find a therapist and begin the work of changing your life.


Things you shouldn’t do to try and manage stress:

  • Drink alcohol or use other kinds of illegal drugs

  • Over eat to try and feel better

  • Smoke cigarette or weed, or vape.

  • Allow your stress responses to come out as anger or rage.

  • Spend all of your waking hours watching TV or on other devices.


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