The stress we experience these days has quite a different meaning to that which our ancestors experienced. The increased pressures of modern life and increased demands placed on our time and energy has meant that we are now living in a constant state of chronic stress. This is very different to the acute stress response that use to occur in order to avoid threat and danger.
- What is 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 our body’s response to a disruption of homeostasis, or “inner equilibrium”. It’s the result of chemical reactions that happen within our own body in response to external events (“stressors”), such as getting stuck in traffic or being made redundant.
It is not the stressor that determines the response, instead it is how we perceive the situation that determines our individual internal reaction, which then triggers the response. The way we experience and perceive stress can vary from person to person.
There are different types of stress we can experience: eustress, acute stress and chronic stress.
This is the type of stress that we consider fun and exciting, such as when you go skiing or skydiving, or even rushing to meet a deadline. The ‘energising’ feeling you get is due to the surges of adrenaline.
Acute stress is a very short-term type of stress that can be either positive or more harmful. This is the ‘day-to-day stress we often encounter like stuck in traffic, an argument with a loved one or sitting an exam.
Chronic stress is the type of stress that seems never-ending and that you can’t escape from, like an extremely taxing job, ongoing financial strain or an underlying chronic health condition.
How Your Body Responds to Stress
Stressor perceived by the body
|When a stressor is perceived by the body, it triggers our sympathetic nervous system, commonly known as our 'fight or flight' response.|
A chemical reaction takes place
|During this reaction, certain hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released from the adrenal glands.|
A physical reaction is triggered
|Adrenaline and cortisol increase our heart rate & blood pressure to give our 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, our parasympathetic nervous sytem, known as '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 us in a near-constant state of fight or flight, which can cause long term damage to the body.|
How does stress harm the body?
While acute stress can have positive effects on our physical and mental health, chronic and prolonged stress resulting in constant elevated levels of cortisol can have a serious impact on our health. 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 to optimal health and longevity.
It is important to reduce your total exposure to all forms of stress, including psychological or physiological. It is not possible to remove all stress from our lives, but we can take measures to reduce it in all most situations.
The first step is to avoid unnecessary stress. This often seems obvious, but it isn’t. It’s easy to overlook habitual patterns of thought and behavior that cause unnecessary stress above and beyond the stress we can’t avoid.
Exercise can reduce levels of both cortisol and adrenaline in the body if done at the right intensity and the right amount. In addition, it releases endorphins which are the body’s natural painkillers and have beneficial effects on mood and reduces stress levels. High intensity exercise does temporarily raise cortisol levels as it is a form of acute stress, so adjust your workouts to how you feel. Including some high intensity training on days your stress levels are more balanced and focus on more gentle exercise like walking or yoga on other days. Aim to get between 30-45 minutes of daily exercise.
Social support is positively correlated with mental and physical health. Try to connect and spend quality time with those in your social network.
A lack of sleep results in an increase in stress hormones in the body. Furthermore, chronic sleep deprivation also places one at risk for developing mental health disorders such as depression. Aim to get 7-8 hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep per night.
Stress depletes our body of nutrients so it is important to replenish these nutrients. Avoid skipping meals or reaching for the unhealthy snacks as they too can lead to further increase of cortisol in the body. Eat nutritionally dense healthy whole foods. Try to incorporate a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables into your diet. Avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol.
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.
- Meditation: A mental exercise involving concentration, observation and awareness to calm the mind. There are several different types and techniques of meditation which include visualization, focusing attention on breathing, reflection and resting awareness.
- Mindfulness: Focusing your thoughts on the present moment.
- 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 to increase clarity and mental focus.
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 and 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.