The World Health Organisation has classified stress as the “health epidemic of the 21st century”.
Research continues to show that chronic stress is lowering our quality of life and contributing to both physical and mental health issues such as Type 2 diabetes, digestive issues, increased colds and flu, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, cancer, anxiety and depression. According to UK’s Dr Chatterjee (ref 1), “up to 80% of all GP consultations are thought to be somehow related to stress”.
So, what is stress and how can we avoid it?
WHAT IS STRESS?
Unfortunately, we can’t get away from stress – it’s a necessary part of our survival. Our stress response is a natural, short-term reaction to prepare our bodies for physical activity when danger is near.
Stress for our ancestors was primarily physical where it prepared them to either fight or run from danger, such as being hunted by a hungry sabre tooth tiger. Our ancestors have evolved throughout the ages dealing with increasing stressors, including famine, extreme weather, war and so on to our modern world where we now suffer much more psychological stress such as being stuck in traffic jams, living in crowded spaces, surrounded by negative news, are time poor, endless multi-tasking, constant tight deadlines to meet, mortgages to pay, food to buy, mounting debt, divorce, break-ups, etc. What hasn’t evolved as quickly is our stress response.
WHAT HAPPENS DURING STRESS?
When a stressful situation occurs the same fight-or-flight response is triggered whether the stress is physical or psychological. The stress response quickly mobilises our bodies for immediate physical activity – fighting the danger off or running from it. Our body temporarily diverts energy from our “rest and digest” system to deal with our stress response and allows priority to deal with protection and survival. Sugar and oxygen are diverted to the most important organs to deal with this including the brain to increase alertness, the skeletal muscles to fight off the attacker or flee, and the heart to pump enough blood to the brain and muscles.
We often hear of people lifting cars during times of massive stress and they are astonished at how they could possibly have managed to do that. Our body’s natural ability to divert energy to deal with “fight or flight” during the stress response helps to make this possible.
But there are temporary trade-offs with diverting this energy. Our body tries to keep a healthy equilibrium, or homeostasis, throughout the day and prioritises the “rest and digest” mode. The “rest and digest” body functions are non-essential to the stress response so are temporarily inhibited whilst the stress response takes priority and diverts some necessary resources to prepare our body for physical activity.
That means our digestive, urinary, reproductive and immune systems take a bit of a back seat to prepare our body in the best possible way. Our blood pressure and heart rate increases, our stomach fills with acid, our bowels and bladder evacuate to make us lighter for a quick getaway, and our “bliss” chemicals (dopamine and seratonin) are reduced to support protection and survival. This is natural. This is necessary. This is life.
IF IT’S NATURAL FOR OUR SURVIVAL, WHY IS STRESS SO BAD FOR US?
We know that our stress mode is designed to help us with a short-term physical response. A little stress every now and then is not something to be concerned about and helps to build resilience and even better health. Eustress is what we call good or positive stress and is essential to prepare our bodies and minds to face daily challenges. We all use it, without even thinking. Our “fight or flight” system is activated, we deal with the challenge, and then it is deactivated and our body returns to a more normal balance in the “rest and digest” mode.
As examples. If we run a race, our body is in stress mode to achieve the challenge. And afterwards, we allow our bodies to relax and recover before trying it again. If we have to brake sharply when driving to avoid an accident, our stress response is triggered, and when the danger has passed, our bodies return to a normal balance. When we have a job interview or exam, most of us will have some level of stress and afterwards, our stress response is turned off and we relax. Our body is constantly dealing with stressors and it adapts to restore homeostasis and maintain balance in the body to enjoy health and wellness.
Our modern stressors are much more related to psychological stress, where the perceived dangers do not pass, and instead leave our mind and body overly aroused in the fight or flight response. Due to our pressures of life and having too much to do, many of us are unfortunately living in a constant state of moderate or high stress and are spending most of our day with the stress response switched on. And this can continue during the night and may manifest itself as disrupted sleep or even nightmares.
As we advance, the modern world has more and more to do and many of aren’t allowing ourselves the proper rest and recovery time between our daily stressors. We treat ourselves like machines and believe that we don’t need to switch off – we’ll be fine, we can cope, we have no choice and so on. It’s this constant state of stress and fear of not achieving that overloads our system until it becomes chronic stress, which severely impedes our rest and digest system, and the release of our “bliss” chemicals which influence our happiness. And this in turn can cause or exacerbate many physical and mental health problems including weight gain, increased illness, disease, feelings of overwhelm, hopelessness, anxiety and depression.
Healthy stress = adequate rest and recovery
Chronic stress = no rest and recovery
WHAT CAUSES STRESS?
Theo Compernolle, author of Brainchains (Ref 2), believes that we now learn more in one year than our ancestors learned in their lifetime. With the advances in knowledge and technology, we have so much more to do and think about in today’s world, which it is leaving many of us living in a constant state of moderate or high stress.
Stress can be emotional, mental, physical or environmental. It can be caused by any number of reasons including physical pain, over-exertion, over-exercise, poor diet, blood sugar imbalance, toxins, excess use of stimulants, lack of or disrupted sleep, bereavement and loss, relationship difficulties, divorce/separation, bullying, inner conflict, negative self talk, feeling under too much pressure, financial stress, excessive worrying, environmental toxins, noise and so on.
The challenges and stressors we face will be individual to us so stress can and will manifest itself differently in everyone. What makes us all different in the causes of stress is the unique threshold we have for the amount of stress we can manage. So, what is highly stressful to one person, may be less so or even euphoric to someone else.
For example – one person may love snakes and keep them as pets, whereas to someone else it’s the stuff of nightmares and raises their stress levels. That same person may thrive on things like sky-diving, whereas it may cause significant stress to the snake lover. A loud noise may frighten someone and trigger their stress response, but it may not bother someone else. And some may thrive on public speaking, whereas it’s a major stressor for others. So, what causes stress is very different to everyone, but what is the same is when our stress load becomes too much and chronic stress develops.
HOW DO WE MANAGE STRESS?
Unfortunately, many of us are too busy to notice that we are suffering from stress until we develop chronic stress, were we can have feelings of hopelessness, doom and gloom, never being able to see further than the present, never feeling satisfied, becoming isolated and withdrawn and even depressed.
Therefore, an important skill we can develop is being aware of our body, listening to what it’s telling us and rebalancing if we feel our stress load is becoming too much. To support anyone looking to manage their stress load, we have highlighted some key health and lifestyle changes that may be helpful to redress the balance. It will take a little bit of time to introduce change, so do stick with them until you start noticing the benefits. Key to achieving them is belief, commitment and consistency.
– Introduce a structured daily routine – our body loves routine.
– We are human, not machines so be realistic at what you’re able to achieve in a day.
– Eat a nutritious diet and avoid or minimise junk food.
– Reduce caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
– Introduce some good sleep hygiene to your daily routine (see our previous blog on sleep) so that you can sleep well for 6-8 hours a night.
– Disconnect from being available 24/7.
– Stop believing that multi-tasking works – it actually creates more work. Instead, batch similar tasks together.
– Learn to say no (and if it’s to your boss, provide a fair and valid reason!)
– Try to get outside daily for natural light – our bodies need this.
– Make time to rest and relax doing something that you enjoy.
– Develop a good social network and take time out to have fun.
– Include moderate exercise in your daily routine.
– Introduce daily gratitude – what are you thankful for.
– Do a kind act each day – even if it is a compliment to make someone feel good.
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Ref 1: Chatterjee R, (2018), The Stress Solution, Penguin Random House UK
Ref 2: Compernolle T, (2014), Brainchains, Theo Compernolle and Compublications
Disclaimer: The content in this blog is not intended to constitute or be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek advice from a medical practitioner.