The stress we experience these days has quite a different meaning to what our ancestors experienced. While it's not the norm to hunt wild animals and fend for our lives in the wild these days, modern life and the subsequent demands placed on our time and energy means it's common to be in a constant state of chronic stress.
- What is stress?
- What are the different types of stress?
- How your body responds to stress
- How does stress harm the body?
- What you can do to alleviate stress
What is stress?
The famous physiologist who coined the term ‘stress’, Hans Selye, defined it as ‘the nonspecific response of the body to any demand made upon it’.
In other words, stress is your body’s response to a disruption of homeostasis (balance in the body), or “inner equilibrium”. It’s the result of chemical reactions that happen within your own body in response to external events (“stressors”), like getting stuck in traffic or being made redundant.
It's not the stressor that determines the response. Instead, it's how you perceive the situation that determines your individual internal reaction. This then triggers the response. The way stress is experienced and perceived can vary from person to person.
What are the different types of stress?
There are different types of stress we can experience: eustress, acute stress and chronic stress.
Not all stress is bad. You know that rush you get when you do something fun and exciting, like going skiing or skydiving? This is actually 'eustress' caused by a surge of adrenaline!
Acute stress is a very short-term type of stress that can be either positive or more harmful. It's the day-to-day stress everyone deals with at some point, like being stuck in traffic, having an argument with a loved one or sitting an exam.
Chronic stress is the type of stress that seems never-ending and inescapable, like an extremely taxing job, ongoing financial strain or an underlying chronic health condition.
How your body responds to stress
Stressor perceived by your body
|When your body perceives a stressor, it triggers your sympathetic nervous system and creates a 'fight or flight' response.|
A chemical reaction takes place
|During this reaction, your adrenal glands release certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.|
A physical reaction is triggered
|Adrenaline and cortisol increase your heart rate and blood pressure, giving your body the burst of energy it needs to deal with the situation.|
|The increase of cortisol also results in the temporary suppression of the digestive system and other important bodily functions.|
Rest and digest
|Once the perceived threat has gone, your parasympathetic nervous system, known as the 'rest and digest' or 'relaxation response', is designed to kick in and return the body back to its normal homeostatic state.|
|In cases of chronic stress, the response doesn't occur regularly enough. It leaves you in a near-constant state of fight or flight which can cause long term damage to your body.|
How does stress harm your body?
While acute stress can have positive effects on your physical and mental health, chronic and prolonged stress - resulting in constant elevated levels of cortisol - can have a more serious impact. This can result in things such as:
- Elevated blood sugar levels
- Weakened immune system
- Impaired digestive system
- Sugar or salt cravings
- Hormone imbalance
- Mood disorders (depression, anxiety and mood imbalances)
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
What you can do to alleviate stress
Stress management is absolutely crucial for optimal health and longevity.
It's important to reduce your total exposure to all forms of stress, including psychological or physiological. It's almost impossible to remove all stress from your life, but you can take measures to reduce it in most situations.
The first step is to avoid unnecessary stress. This often seems obvious, but it’s easy to overlook habitual patterns of thought and behaviour that cause unnecessary stress above and beyond the stress we can’t avoid.
Exercise can reduce levels of both cortisol and adrenaline in your body if done at the right intensity and amount. It also releases endorphins, which are your body’s natural painkillers, reducing stress and balancing mood.
High intensity exercise temporarily raises cortisol levels as it's a form of acute stress, so why not adjust your workouts to how you feel on that particular day?Or, avoid high intensity exercise if you don't think it's right for you. It's a common misconception that all exercise needs to be high intensity. That doesn't work for everyone, especially if you're chronically stressed. Brisk walking, yoga and pilates are more than enough as long as you try to be active for 30-45 minutes everyday.
Social support is positively correlated with mental and physical health. Try to connect with and spend quality time with your friends and family regularly.
A lack of sleep results in an increase of stress hormones in the body. And chronic sleep deprivation also puts you at risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression. Aim to get 7-8 hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep per night.
Stress depletes your body of nutrients, so it's important to replenish these nutrients. Avoid skipping meals or reaching for unhealthy snacks as they can also lead to more cortisol in the body.
Eat nutritionally dense, healthy whole foods, try to incorporate a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables into your diet (ideally 8-12 portions per day) and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol.
The nutrients that are key for the muscular and nervous system and should be a focus in your diet include:
Vitamin C: In all fresh, raw fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruit, kiwi, mango, papaya, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, red pepper, kale, broccoli, chilli and parsley. While you can get vitamin C in food, the quality of soil in food production has decreased a lot in modern life. Plus, the demands of modern life due to environmental toxins and chronic stress have increased people's requirements for vitamin C. Learn more about vitamin C here.
B vitamins:Whole grains, pulses (esp. lentils), beans, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, tofu, eggs, lean meat, fish and seafood, avocadoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, yeast, wheatgerm, fruit (esp. oranges), and brown rice.
B12:Generally not available in plant foods, except chlorella, seaweed, and fermented soy. Also found in meat, seafood and eggs.
Sodium:Seaweed, celery, beetroot, chard, carrots, sweet peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, sea salt, Himalayan salt, rock salt, and drinking water.
Potassium:Dark leafy greens, carrots, avocadoes, watermelon and bananas.
Chloride:Sea vegetables, olives, rye, celery, tomatoes and sea salt.
Calcium: Dark leafy greens, almonds, sesame seeds, buckwheat, rye, beans and peas.
Magnesium: All green vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, legumes, wholegrains, lean meat, and eggs.
Iron: Dark leafy greens, figs, prunes, beetroot, nuts and seeds, quinoa, pulses, lentils, red meat, chicken, oysters and sardines.
Essential fatty acids:
Omega 3: Green leafy veg, nuts (esp. walnuts) and seeds (esp. flaxseeds and chia seeds), and avocado.
These techniques activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help to dampen the stress response:
- Breathing exercises: Taking long, slow deep breaths with focus. Breathe in through the nose for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, exhale through the mouth for 8 seconds. Repeat 6 times.
- Meditation: A mental exercise involving concentration, observation and awareness to calm the mind. There are several different types and techniques of meditation which include visualisation, focusing attention on breathing, reflection and resting awareness. The easiest way to get started is probably using a recording of a guided meditation. There are many free ones on YouTube, or apps like Headspace are useful.
- Mindfulness: Focusing your thoughts on the present moment. Notice how what your doing feels, what smells and sounds are around you, what you can see, etc. You can even do this when you're doing mundane tasks like washing the dishes or brushing your teeth.
- Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR): Used to relieve muscle tension, stress and anxiety by progressively tensing groups of muscles in the body and subsequently relaxing them.
- Yoga, tai-chi and qi-gong: Using various postures and movements along with steady breathing, especially pranayama breathing, to increase clarity and mental focus. Yin and restorative yoga are particularly relaxing due to their meditative element and because the practice includes deep stretching for longer durations of time.
- Journaling: Putting your thoughts on paper can make them feel less overwhelming. It also distances you from them and helps to clear your head. Try journaling every evening before bed. If you find it difficult to think of what to write down, you could start with writing down 5 things you're grateful for that day.
- Epsom salt baths: Epsom salts and hot water both have a relaxing effect on the muscles, plus these salts are detoxifying which can help pull out any toxins that could be contributing to your stress.
- Cold showers: It might sound uncomfortable, but putting cold water on during your shower (even for just a few seconds) stimulates the vagus nerve and calms the nervous system.
Taking time to reduce and manage stress is vital for your health. The most important thing you can do when you are going through stressful periods is to make sure you are continuing to look after yourself. Practice self-care, make time to relax and do something YOU enjoy. And when you need to, set some boundaries and learn to say no to requests that are too much for you.