By Claudette Silver
Okay, let me give you the lingo. There’s
the side kick, the roundhouse, cross punch, upper cut and of course
the jab. Ooh, and the hook, how could I forget the hook? I’ll
admit it. I am a kick-boxing junkie. Thanks to the likes of Billy Blanks
of Tae-Bo fame and countless workout videos, kick-boxing has grown in
popularity across the country. When I enthusiastically blab about my
love—almost obsession—with kick-boxing, I am often met with
a surprised look from the listener. You’re into kick-boxing? At
first I took this repeated surprise personally, as if somehow I wasn’t
judged to be coordinated enough to manage the class. Then, I asked a
co-worker why she was so surprised.
“Well,” she said, “I mean you’re into nonviolence
and yoga! You’re vegan, you’ve taught peace studies classes
to kids and you oppose guns and the NRA. Kick-boxing just seems so…violent!”
Hmm. Well, she’s right. When you put it that way, my kick-boxing
love does seem rather out of character. But I am here to make a bold
declaration once and for all: kick-boxing is saving my sanity.
I doubt I could find a single adult in America who would describe themselves
as even remotely “stress-free.” A 1999 report issued by
the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) cited
the workplace as the single largest stress factor for the average American.
More than 25 percent of workers surveyed said they were not just “sometimes”
stressed-out at work, rather they were “very often burned out
or stressed by their work.” Add to that what I call “activist
stress”—the roller coaster of ups and downs inherent in
simply trying to make the world a better place—and it’s
no wonder a lot of us are losing sleep, getting ulcers and aging before
The symptoms of stress are oh-so familiar: your heart races, your palms
sweat and your mouth dries up, and you’re overwhelmed with anxiety
that just can’t be shaken. Put simply—you’re stressed-out.
But what exactly do we mean by stress and why do our bodies react in
the way they do? And why would kick-boxing do anything to improve one’s
The Body Mechanics of Stress
I have to say I am pretty awe-struck by the mechanics of the human body.
At the base of all functions is the overriding drive to maintain homeostasis,
or balance, no matter what’s going on around you. For example,
the heat goes up and you sweat to cool the body. The thermostat drops
and you start to shiver—your body’s attempt to warm up and
return your internal temperature to normal. Homeostasis is at the center
of health and survival, and it is something we don’t even have
to think about. Cell maintenance, reproduction and growth all function
optimally when your body is in balance. In fact, throw your body out
of whack long enough and these systems may cease functioning all together.
Enter a severe threat to this balance, aka stress. How does the body
react? At the beginning of the 20th century, physiologist Walter Cannon,
studying how the body adapts in the face of stressors, coined the phrase
“fight or flight” to describe an animal’s response
to stress. Here’s how it works. A physical threat comes your way—someone
jumping from behind a bush or a wild animal chasing you through the
jungle. The hypothalamus, the region in the brain responsible for metabolic
activity, kicks into action and gets the pituitary gland going. The
adrenal glands hop on board and soon a series of hormones, like epinephrine
and norepinephrine, are released into the bloodstream. They are what
help you through that first moment of stress by raising your heart rate
and dilating your blood vessels. Blood flow is also redirected away
from the digestive tract to the muscles of our arms and legs. We are
able to act—either stay and fight or run for your life—in
the split second after the appearance of the stressor because of the
secretion of these hormones.
Another series of hormones called glucocorticoids, released by a different
area of the adrenals, help with prolonged or continued stressors. They
take over when a long-term solution is necessary, once the “surprise”
factor has subsided. Glucocorticoids are responsible for many of the
same functions as other adrenal hormones, but are released over the
long haul. These systems work together hand in hand, a sort of “stress
tag team” to ensure that the body has the ability to handle the
stressful situation for as long as needed. These physiological adaptations
are a pretty standard survival tool across the animal kingdom.
There is one rather puzzling thing, however, about this response in
humans. For most of our history, the stressors likely to induce this
kind of response would have looked more like a tiger chasing us for
dinner rather than a traffic jam. The intense psychological stress,
like emotional tension or strain, that we experience in modern life
is a relatively new phenomenon. And oddly enough, in terms of the “fight
or flight” syndrome, research suggests that the human animal does
not distinguish between physical or emotional stress. To your body,
there is no difference between anticipating a final exam and running
from an enemy.
It gets even stranger. Simply thinking about a stressful situation that
might occur in the future can cause our bodies to react as if it were
happening now. It’s called worry, and we all know it as the anticipation
of stressors yet to come. Again, our bodies react as if our survival
were threatened. So what we perceive as a threat to our well-being on
a psychological level, now or in the future, affects us very deeply
at a physiological level.
For sure, we could not live without this stress response. It helps us
escape potentially dangerous situations. In fact, like all other systems
of the body, it functions best when in balance. Over time, the out-of-balance
overuse of the stress response system can be a very bad thing. Remember
those glucocorticoids? Continual release of these hormones causes wear
and tear on the body’s other systems, including the immune system,
which can lead to such modern maladies as diabetes, heart disease and
digestive disorders. Turn on the stress response too often, and the
body simply doesn’t have the stores of energy it needs to heal,
grow, or reproduce.
In his pivotal book on stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,
Robert M. Sapolsky, Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University,
notes, “If you are that zebra running for your life, or that lion
sprinting for your meal, your body’s physiological response mechanisms
are superbly adapted for dealing with such short term physical emergencies.
When we sit around and worry about stressful things, we turn on the
same physiological responses—and they are potentially a disaster
when provoked chronically for psychological or other reasons.”
It’s as simple as that.
So what does this have to do with throwing a few punches at the gym?
Because we are taught that most of our stresses are things we just simply
have to “deal” with, we tend to feel helpless when it comes
to doing something about them. Stress at work is a given, congested
traffic and lines at the supermarket are a common price to pay for modern
life. Whether they have a doggone thing to do with our “true”
survival or not, we think they do—or our bodies do at least. So
over and over we accumulate an excess of stress hormones in the body,
and remember—the reason our stress response system exists is to
get the body moving. Well all right then—here’s the key!
Get moving! When I throw a punch or execute a kick, it is fulfilling
a much deeper need than working for “buns of steel” or simply
learning how to pummel someone. I am actually utilizing the stress response
system in the way it was intended, raising my heart rate and using the
large muscles of my body to fight like aerobic hell!
Also, with all aerobic activity, just like a stressful situation, heart
rate increases and blood vessels dilate. This time, however, instead
of having your pulse skyrocket with nowhere to go but up—as in
the case of psychological or imagined stress—aerobic exercise
gives you that outlet for release. And when you are finished exercising,
your heart rate decreases naturally, restoring calm. Again, Sapolsky
notes, “If your blood pressure rises to 180/40 when you are sprinting
away from a lion, you are being adaptive, but if it is 180/40 every
time you see the mess in your teenager’s bedroom, you could be
heading for cardiovascular disease.” Aerobic exercise takes care
of bringing down your blood pressure and you don’t even have to
do a thing but shake your booty!
So, my beloved kick-boxing “burns off” these excess stress
hormones in a way that sitting and stewing about stress cannot. It also
stimulates the release of morphine-like chemicals in the brain called
endorphins, which enhance mood and fight depression. Ideally, of course,
removing the stressors in life would be the best solution to combating
chronic stress. But until we can all stop working and spend our days
lying on a beach eating fresh papayas, I am gonna keep kicking and punching
and jabbing my way outta stress. It’s the most compassionate thing
I can do for my sanity. The real opponent here is not another person
or a hungry tiger, but the crazy place we call modern life.
Claudette Silver is a Satya Consulting
Editor and is an artist and writer who lives with her two feline loves,
Pinky and Delilah, in Washington, DC.