Karōshi is a Japanese word that translates to ‘death from overwork’. It is used to describe occupational sudden deaths, which occur most commonly by heart attack or stroke due to stress and starvation. We don’t have such a word in English and in general, stress is downplayed in our daily lives. Sentences like, “it’s just stress,” are common. So what is this stress that the Japanese revere so much that they have a word to describe death by it, and that we in the West seem to commonly brush off and ignore as so very minor?
Stress is defined as any physical, physiological or psychological force that disrupts equilibrium, or creates an imbalance in the body’s internal environment. If you are facing the physical stress of an external force on your body, the physiological stress of an illness or an injury, or the psychological stress of emotional upheavals surrounding major life events, your body reacts exactly the same on a molecular level, by utilizing your sympathetic nervous system. Your reaction to stress, known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, happens in the three stages: the Fight or Flight stage, the Adaptation stage and the Exhaustion stage.
During the Fight or Flight stage your sympathetic nervous system sends neurological impulses to your adrenal glands initiating the release of adrenalin. Adrenalin is a hormone that is perhaps best known for making humans capable of extreme strengths in emergency situations: picture the average man who is suddenly able to lift an entire vehicle off his child, immediately following a car accident. Adrenalin’s purpose is to help get you through immediate stress by either fighting the stressor or by flight, running away from it. A steroid hormone called Cortisol soon replaces Adrenalin. If the word Cortisol sounds familiar it’s probably because of Cortisone, a synthetic steroid drug derived from Cortisol, which is used by medical doctors to treat acute pain and other ailments.
When a stressor is persistent you then enter the Adaption stage. During this stage your body struggles to resist or adapt to the stressor, and your adrenal glands continue to release Cortisol. Cortisol’s main function is to redistribute glucose to the areas of the body that need energy the most. In stressful situations, if you are running from a bear for example, you need your brain to function efficiently and you need your heart to pump blood to your muscles so they might move effectively. Cortisol sends glucose to those areas so they get the energy they need. Other bodily functions such as food digestion, bowel and bladder voidance and immune function are not immediately necessary for survival. Cortisol takes glucose, and thus energy, from those areas. In this way cortisol enhances and increases some functions (think blood pressure) and suppresses others (consider how rarely you’ve felt hungry when you’ve been scared).
Your immune system is what protects you from external and internal threats like viruses and bacteria and it even plays a role in wound healing. Suppression of this system makes you more susceptible to various illnesses. You digestive system is the system that breaks down food into the nutrients that your body can use for various life sustaining processes. Prolonged suppression of your digestive system can lead to malnutrition, which can in turn lead to fatigue and other illnesses. Your heart is responsible for blood flow. Cortisol acts to enhance the heart’s function, forcing it to work over time. All of these effects would be harmless, even beneficial if short term. But when prolonged due to prolonged stress, these effects can be detrimental, all the while creating additional stresses for your body to deal with.
When stress persists you enter the final stage of the stress response, the Exhaustion stage. Your body has used up all its resources; your immune system and your body’s ability to resist disease are eliminated. Very often, people who are subject to long-term stress succumb to heart attacks, preceded by high blood pressure, or strokes or even severe illness or infection due to depleted immune function.
Karōshi – death from overwork.
Perhaps it’s time we borrowed this word and used it as our own? And if not, maybe we should just take a little more time each day to appreciate relaxation and it’s importance in our lives? By relaxing, you might just be saving your own life. And you are definitely enhancing your overall general well being.
In BC, Registered Massage Therapists (RMTs) are trained in the stress response. We learn specific techniques designed to help sedate the sympathetic nervous system and to reduce stress – enabling you to truly relax. And while massage therapy isn’t the only stress relieving activity, it sure is a good place to start! In addition, your BC RMT can give you tips and tricks to help reduce stress on your own at home after or between massage appointments.
You don’t have to be in physical pain to benefit from therapeutic massage! Stress is a serious thing. It can kill you. Remember that when you book your next relaxation appointment!