We are constantly advised to ‘just chill out’, ‘stop worrying’ and ‘stop stressing’ but isn’t that just part of life? How does it really impact our health and do we really need to change how we operate?
What Is ‘Stress’?
So many of us can relate to what ‘feeling stressed’ feels like but it is hard to describe what it actually is. One person’s experience can be totally different to another. Our genetics, life experiences and current environment all contribute to the way we react to situations. Mild stress can be beneficial for health, as it challenges our minds and bodies. It provides motivation and growth. However, when our bodies perceive excess stress, this can have many negative consequences on both mental and physical health. This is particularly detrimental when the stress becomes long term and ongoing.
Many of us experience psychological stress when we feel unable to cope with the demands being placed upon us. But stress can take many other forms including physical (excess noise, exercise, pain), social (redundancy, bereavement, loneliness) and biological (blood sugar extremes, use of caffeine, alcohol), to name but a few.
What Does Stress Do to Our Bodies?
- The autonomic nervous system has two branches, each requiring no conscious thought. The sympathetic branch or ‘fight or flight’ response is activated when our body perceives danger. In contrast, the parasympathetic or ‘rest and digest’ response stimulates digestion, metabolism and help the body to relax.
- Our bodies have not really evolved dramatically from the cavemen who would have been exposed to very different types of daily stress, such as life-threatening situations like being confronted by a sabre tooth tiger. Under those conditions, the sympathetic branch would initiate the production of adrenalin and noradrenalin. These hormones are responsible for inducing the ‘fight or flight’ response, increasing heart rate and breathing, suspending the body’s normal operations (such as digestion and repair), to instead divert maximum resources towards the muscles and heart. This would allow us to be physically prepared to deal with that imminent danger by fighting or running away.
- If the ‘danger’ does not go away and we remain in a state of alert, a second ‘resistance stage’ kicks in where the brain signals for a different stress hormone, ‘cortisol’ to be produced by the adrenals. This stress hormone operates differently to adrenalin, increasing blood pressure and blood sugar levels. As a steroid hormone, cortisol has a powerful anti-inflammatory action which can interfere with our immune response, so can make us more susceptible to illness. When our immune system is compromised, it is less able to manage inflammation (part of the immune response) appropriately. Long-term chronic systemic inflammation can occur, which can increase our risk of serious conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression.
- Long-term ongoing stress can result in persistently raised levels of cortisol, leading to fatigue, impaired memory, struggle sleeping, digestive complaints, low mood, impaired immunity, weight gain and a feeling of being ‘tired but wired’ where it becomes impossible to switch off.
- Also, being in a constant state of ‘high alert’ can make us perceive everything as dangerous, leading to anxiety and depression.
- Insulin is another important hormone (released by the pancreas) which regulates how the body uses and stores glucose and fat. Stress hormones can result in blood glucose levels increasing so we have the energy to fight or flee from danger. But the stresses we experience in modern day life often require no physical action. Instead, insulin is released to signal the liver, muscle and fat cells to take up this unused energy, where it is stored as fat, often around the midline, for use at a later time.
- Unfortunately, if this happens repeatedly over a long time, the action of the insulin can become impaired, leading to ‘insulin resistance’, which can, in turn, increase the risk for other more serious conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
- Stress hormones such as cortisol are produced from the same precursors as sex hormones such as oestrogen and testosterone so long term stress can also seriously reduce levels of those hormones, affecting libido and many female hormone related conditions.
The effects described above are only part of the body’s incredibly complex and finely tuned response to stress.
The real problem in our current daily lives is often not how the stress response operates, but how often it is activated by situations that are not life-threatening, but elicit the same response.
So, just how can we manage our lives better so that our stress response is reduced? Thankfully there are many ways, but we first need to start to recognise the signs that we are suffering from stress. Only then are we able to act in the right way at the right time, allowing our nervous system to evaluate and act appropriately on our perceived stressors.
How Can I Tell If I’m Stressed?
This may sound like a silly question, but stressors affect different people in different ways. Sometimes it is easy to immediately notice that we are stressed as our breath becomes short and shallow, our muscles tense up and we may feel a sense of panic or loss of control. But often, we can become used to living in this state and fail to acknowledge that this is an unhealthy way to live our daily lives. Over time, we may start to experience other symptoms such as headaches, more general aches and pains and muscle tightness, poor digestion and very commonly struggle to sleep. Any or all of these can, over the long term, lead to irritability, altered appetite, memory problems, anxiety and depression.
Learning to recognise and act to reduce stress where possible is key to reducing the chronic health problems associated with long-term stress.
5 Ways to Manage Stress:
The great news is that once you’ve acknowledged that you are stressed, there are many ways you can help yourself by making small changes to your daily life and regaining some control over what you can.
- Plan and Prioritise: Frequently remind yourself that there are many things you can do to alter your stress load. Once you notice what events trigger your feelings of stress, you can start to plan ahead to minimise those events as much as possible. Many people feel stressed from common daily occurrences such as traffic jams, being hungry, thirsty or overtired, or feeling obliged to do things that are in fact optional, but we lack the courage to say no to. By planning ahead and being strong and firm (but respectful) with what you agree to, you can take back some control and avoid some of those stressful situations. Setting firm boundaries and priorities is key to managing how you manage your own and other people’s expectations.
- Acceptance: Whilst there are many ways we can help to reduce the chance of stressful events occurring, there are obviously so many aspects to life that are beyond our control. In cases where we feel unable to change the situation, accepting the way things are may be our only option. This can be difficult and it may be helpful to talk to someone you trust or seek guidance through a qualified counsellor. Skills such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) may help you reframe your thoughts and stop you from being stuck in a constant negative loop of thoughts.
- Move:– Regular moderate and varied exercise, whilst benefitting physical and mental health, can also help to reduce levels of stress hormones and inflammation. Further, exercise increases levels of endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormones that act on the opiate receptors in our brains, helping to boost pleasure and relieve stress. Certain forms of exercise, such as yoga, pilates and tai chi, also place high importance on the breath and its link with movement, so they have the added benefit of practising mindfulness, thereby increasing our feeling of control and helping us to take a break from incessant worrying and rumination. Trying to build even a small amount of exercise into every single day can really help to manage those stress levels. This does not have to take the form of a class or gym session but can be as simple as a short brisk walk around the block or some heavy gardening or cleaning. Whatever you choose, make sure you prioritise it in your daily to-do list and try to gauge whether your chosen activity has had any effect in reducing your stress levels. it may take some trial and error to find what works best for you.
- Other mindfulness practice/ meditation: As mentioned above, trying to pursue mindfulness can help you to observe, rather than getting caught up in your thoughts, giving you clarity and increasing your sense of calm control. There are many ways to weave mindfulness practice into our daily lives including whilst we walk in nature, actively listen to those we speak with, keeping a gratitude journal or engage in regular meditation practice, however short.
- Build connections: Even before COVID restrictions hit in 2020, more and more people were suffering from loneliness, even those in younger age brackets. Many scientific studies have shown how loneliness can increase stress hormones such as cortisol, negatively impacting our health as described above. Taking the time to build and maintain connections with those we love and those we have similar interests with can help us to feel part of family and community. This can even be possible over our computer screens (via Zoom or FaceTime) by looking for local groups that meet regularly such as book clubs or exercise classes that have taken their meetings online. Chronic, long-term loneliness can happen to even the most extrovert of people if they feel unable to connect on a deeper level with others over a long period of time. This can impact on all areas of life and can lead to feelings of lack of self-worth, self-doubt, anxiety and depression. In this case, it is essential to seek professional help from your GP, therapist or other healthcare professional.
- Nutrition & Supplements: There is so much evidence, advice and discussion on what we eat and how it affects our physical and mental health. To summarise extremely briefly, we should be aiming to eat a ‘rainbow diet’ of vegetables and fruit, include adequate amounts of high quality protein, wholegrains, sufficient water and healthy fats and eliminating processed food wherever possible. (See BANT Wellness Solution below). Eating in this way should go a long way to supporting a healthy stress response, not to mention a myriad of other health benefits. (Look out for much more detailed future blogs on nutrition).
- Sleep is crucial for our survival and vast amounts of scientific evidence have shown how it enriches learning, memory & creativity, as well as helping us to be emotionally stable and enhance our ability to control blood sugar, appetite and immune function. The diversity and health of our gut microbiome (the populations of bacteria found mainly in our larger intestines) are also key factors for many aspects of our health including immune function, digestive and mental health. Poor sleep has been shown to negatively impact the microbiome, especially when combined with a high-fat, high -sugar diet. It is obvious how our stress levels are increased after a night of poor sleep as when tired, we feel less able to cope with the demands placed upon us. Prioritising sleep is therefore key to help with stress management, along with a myriad of other health issues. There are many articles, books and specialists who can help but the following basics are a great place to start:
- Sleep hygiene: your bedroom should be cool, dark, comfortable and free from electronic devices, your sleep times consistent. Try to create a relaxing bedtime routine, avoiding screens and bright lights for at least an hour before bedtime.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and other foods/ drinks that are sleep disruptors.
- Getting regular daily exercise, but not too close to bedtime, can really help to contribute to increased quality and quantity of sleep.
- Daily exposure to daylight, particularly in the morning, can also help to reset our natural circadian rhythm which allows our body to sleep and function at the regular and appropriate time each day.
Further suggested reading:
There is so much research and so many great books available to help us understand stress, its effects on our health and strategies to help cope but the following are some of my favourites that I return to time and time again. Remember that we are all unique with unique stressors and stress responses,So so it is important to keep trying different strategies until you find what works best for you. Your mind and body will thank you for it.
‘The Stress Solution’ by Dr Ranjan Chatterjee
‘Stress Proof’ by Dr Mithu Storoni
‘Fat Around the Middle’ by Dr Marilyn Glenville
‘The Sleep Revolution’ by Ariana Huffington
‘Mindfulness – a practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World’ by Mark Williams and Danny Penman