THE PURPOSE OF STRESS
Despite the negative connotations we associate with stress today, it had an important evolutionary role in human survival. Its onset would alert our Caveman ancestors to potentially dangerous situations – preparing them to fight the danger or run from it. Today it still plays an important biological response to help deal with ‘perceived threats’ and difficult situations successfully.
What is it?
Stress is primarily a physical response controlled by the Sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The response releases a stream of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol into the body.
This triggers what is known as the ‘fight or flight’ mode. While our bodies are in this mode, all non-essential functions eg. digestion, are shut down, and energy is focused towards dealing with the ‘perceived threat’.
Stress in the modern world
The problem with stress today isn’t the response itself, but the length of time our bodies are in ‘stress mode’. The stress response was meant as a short-term solution. Once the ‘perceived threat’ is over, the body should return back to normal functioning.
But where our ancestors might have used the stress response for a quick reaction to help them flee a mountain lion. The stressors associated with modern day life are ingrained into our society. Work responsibilities; personal issues; illness and trauma, to name a few, keep our bodies stress levels elevated for longer than is necessary for survival.
This heightens stress response leads to chronic stress. And can have a number of negative effects on the body.
What does stress do to our bodies?
You’ve probably heard people say they are ‘sick with worry’. Most people realise that ongoing stress isn’t good for our mental or physical health. But do you know why?
The constant strain a prolonged stress response can put on the Central nervous system (CNS), can induce a whole host of adverse mental health effects such as irritability; headaches; insomnia; anxiety, and depression. Almost every function in the human body can be adversely affected by an elevated stress response. Over a period of time, the decline in physical health can also have a contributing effect to compromised mental health.
Stress has also been implicated in damaging behaviours including overeating; under eating; drug and alcohol dependency and social withdrawal.
There are a few ways that stress can manifest in our bodies.
#1 stress affects our immune system
Stress stimulates the immune system. In the short term, this has a positive effect, helping to prevent infection and heal wounds.
However, when the stress response becomes chronic it can compromise the immune system by creating chronic inflammatory conditions and lowering an otherwise healthy immune system.
Long-term, increased levels of Cortisol promote inflammatory and autoimmune conditions such as fibromyalgia; rheumatoid arthritis; diabetes; heart disease and cancer. Stress can also affect the ‘signalling’ of immune cells, meaning the body is susceptible to contracting the illness and has longer healing time.
#2 stress affects our Respiratory and Cardiovascular System
During a stress response, your heart races, you breath faster and blood vessels dilate. This is an attempt to pump oxygen and blood around the body faster, for a quicker response.
But, Long-term stress can lead to heart and blood vessel issues. It can cause hypertension as well as increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Faster breaths associated with stress can also result in difficulty breathing for those with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma or lung disease.
#3 stress affects our Digestion System
Stress is very closely linked with stomach health. When in a state of stress, non-critical processes are halted. This includes digestion.
Ongoing stress can affect the way your food moves through your body, causing diarrhoea or constipation. In fact, stress is thought to be one of the key causes of unexplained IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and it can exacerbate symptoms for sufferers.
Plus, during a stress response, your liver produces extra sugar (glucose), to give you a boost of energy. Under normal circumstances, unused blood sugar is reabsorbed into the body. Under chronic stress circumstances, your body may not be able to keep up reabsorb the extra glucose fast enough. In otherwise healthy individuals an increase in glucose and inability to absorb such high amounts can lead to insulin resistance – often a precursor to type 2 diabetes.
In those with type 1 or 2 diabetes, the increase in glucose can make managing their diabetes increasingly difficult. There is a strong link between stress and unstable blood glucose in those with diabetes.
#4 stress causes Muscular Tension
During a stress reaction, your muscles tense to protect themselves from injury.
If this is prolonged, your muscles don’t get the chance to relax. This can lead to general muscle pain and tightness, as well as tension headaches. Over time this may lead to a cycle of inactivity and an overall less healthy lifestyle.
tips from the experts
First of all, don’t panic. Stress is a normal process and can get the best of all of us sometimes.
Whether your battling work deadlines, dealing with personal issues at home or are just feeling overwhelmed by the never-ending to-do list. Dealing with your stress effectively can be the difference between good and bad mental and physical health.
We asked some leading health and well-being experts for their ‘top tips’ on how to prevent and deal with daily stress:
The number one tip I’d give that is accessible to anyone would be to take 5 minutes every day to breath.
It sounds simple, but most days we breathe unconsciously. I would suggest you take 5 minutes a day to consciously breath. Focus on the flow, rhythm and depth of your breath. This can be done at any time, ideally before you get up in the morning or just before you go to sleep at night.
This can even help serve as a “time out” where you allow yourself to ignore all the mental chatter or the stresses of daily life, never mind the benefits of deep breathing.
How do this?
Firstly tune into your natural breath. Then gradually start to make the breath deeper, bringing it all the way into the belly. Focus on expanding and deflating the belly, ribs and chest with every breath. Breathing deeply encourages the nervous system into a state of calm when we are feeling stressed or anxious.
Why is this important?
A lot of people are chest breathers ie. breath to the chest only. By doing this we are not using our lungs fully and we’re dwelling too much in the sympathetic nervous system – the same system responsible for the ‘fight or flight‘ mode. Staying in this system too much we can start to feel adverse effects such as stress, anxiety, hypertension, poor sleep and stomach problems to name a few. Simply breathing deeply can activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which brings balance to our nervous system and into our calm state of ‘rest and digest’.
The first thing to note is that everybody is different. There is no one size fits all when it comes to how much stress our bodies can handle without adverse effects.
So my top tip for managing stress would be to find out how much stress your body can handle ie. the right level of stress for your bodies coping mechanisms. Too little stress can lead to boredom and too much stress results in exhaustion. So it’s important to find the right balance for your body.
A specialist can help you determine this through use of a heart rate variability monitor or a questionnaire. Follow up sessions to interpret the results and give advice on how you can best implement practices that will perfectly balance your own stress levels.
Sleep Tight to manage stress
Getting plenty of good quality, restorative sleep can help manage stress and the effects of it. To do this: Limit sugar, alcohol and caffeine intake; turn off electrical devices before bedtime; have a ‘wind down’ routine; get into a regular rhythm with the same bed and wake up time and eat foods high in tryptophan like turkey and milk.
Remember to be mindful of your surroundings and prioritise what is important to you.
The best advice I can give to help deal with stress is to prioritise your own happiness.
So many people put their own happiness on the back burner, while busy and stressful work and/or personal lives take priority. The key to managing stress is to understand that you are in charge of your life balance and happiness.
Join a class, go to the gym, play with your kids, go for a walk, book a holiday. Do anything that puts your happiness first and gives you something to look forward to. If time is an issue, then make the time. Substituting that hour you spend on Facebook or Instagram for a gym session or even just playtime in the park will do wonders for your body and stress management.
Eat Well, live well!
Eating well can also help to combat and offset some of the negative effects that stress has on our bodies. Make breakfast, lunch and dinner a priority. If you fuel your body properly, you will perform better in every aspect of life.
Try to avoid processed food and fizzy drinks. Mother nature provides us with an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, pulses, fish and herbs. We should make better use of them. It’s never been easier to find great recipes and instructional videos.
Making eating a social event is a great way to talk about things and help you share problems and express emotions, which can be crucial to reducing chronic stress. Sit around the table, turn off the TV and put the phones away.
We hope you’ve found this post useful and learnt something about the consequences of stress and how to better manage your stress in everyday life.
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