What is stress?
Picture yourself as a calm ancient human collecting berries about 50 meters away from your camp. The day is bright and warm and your basket of succulent ripe berries is half full. Ahh, peaceful.
Suddenly you see a FEROCIOUS BEAR coming towards you. You drop your basket, your heart races, breathing quickens, and with a surge of adrenalin you take off at full speed away from the bear.
Now at a safe distance, your heart rate and breathing normalize as you begin to relax from the above-mentioned frightening experience.
This is stress. An evolved response to a perceived threat to keep the body safe. Stress symptoms are biological (change in breathing and heart rate, sweating, an adrenalin surge) as well as psychological (fear, anxiety). Cortisol (the stress hormone) is responsible for the physiological changes we experience during these periods of agitation and threat. Cortisol and adrenaline quicken the heart rate ensuring that there is enough oxygenated blood being pumped to the brain (vital organ – necessary for survival from said bear) as well as the limbs which help you to escape.
Biology of stress – how it works
Stress can be broken down into 3 stages. (General Adaptation Syndrome by Hans Syele, MD).
- Alarm (becoming aware of the bear – experiencing the fight or flight response. ).
- Resistance (Where the recovery stage begins, your heart rate and breathing normalize, but your mind and body are still on high alert – what if the bear comes back?). In the resistance stage, the body is still releasing low levels of cortisol
- Exhaustion – from the chronic levels of cortisol being released, even your stress adrenal glands become exhausted. Some symptoms of the Exhaustion phase include, depression, burn out, fatigue, decreased stress tolerance.
The brain has a system for responding to an unpleasant stimulus, known as the HPA Axis or, Hypothalamic-Pituitary- Adrenal Axis. The hypothalamus first receives a memo of a stressful trigger, which then causes it to release a chemical message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary responds by releasing another chemical that triggers the adrenal glands (tiny little glands that sit atop the kidneys) to release cortisol. Cortisol then acts on the body to prepare it for a fight or flight response. When the hypothalamus stops receiving any signal of threat, it halts the chemical message to the pituitary leading to downstream effects of decreased cortisol production. After this response the body returns to a state of rest and digest – where digestion is normalized and hormones rebalance. During rest and digest periods the body is able to have restful sleep, metabolize foods, experience a libido and other reproductive processes, and have enough energy stores for day to day living.
Now if the bear was constantly present nearby it’s safe to say that you would be anything but relaxed! Similarly, the presence of chronic stress (a bear or otherwise looming in the background) causes the body to feel on-edge in an unrestful state.
What are symptoms of stress that has become chronic?
- Low energy
- Difficulty sleeping, insomnia
- Changes in digestion: constipation, diarrhea, bloating and gas
- Decreased libido
- Unintentional weight gain or loss
- Changes in dietary habits, cravings for sugar
- Decreased immune system, falling sick often
- Difficulty concentrating, brain fog
- Changes in mood, irritability, anxiety, depression
- Hormonal changes in women such as changes in period length or flow
Sources of stress symptoms:
- Career and jobs
- Home life
- Our own health, and the health of loved ones
The true dangers lie in the long-term poor management of stress symptoms and experiences of triggering events. Chronically elevated cortisol eventually leads to exhaustion and burn out.
Recognizing and identifying the root causes of stress is integral to learning effective coping strategies for life long wellness.
How to relieve stress:
- Quick check-in: how do you feel right now in your body? Is your breathing deep and full or short and shallow? Do you notice any stiffness in your muscles or joints?
- Breathing: when there is abundant oxygen going to the brain, your body is reminded that it is notin danger. Deep, slow belly-breaths helps put the body back into rest and digest mode. Try this! Sweet 16 breathing: inhale through your nose for 4 seconds, pause for 4 seconds, exhale slowly through pursed lips for 4 seconds, pause for 4 seconds. Repeat.
- Spending time in nature: Unplug once a day and spend time going for walks in a nearby park.
- Exercise: health guidelines recommend about 30 min of moderate physical activity daily. Movement is a great way to let off steam!
- Seeking out support: reach out to loved ones, a compassionate friend, or a professional who can provide you with the tools to cope and decrease stress symptoms
- Limiting junk foods: sugar cravings are a common stress symptom and too much sugar treats can lead to downstream ill health effects. Avoid reliance on coffee, alcohol, and nicotine.
- Hobbies you enjoy: create and nurture areas of joy in your life daily!
- Boundaries: create space between yourself and the stressful trigger by taking breaks throughout your day, learning when to say no, and prioritizing your self-care routine
- Give thanks: an attitude of gratitude helps retrain the mind to focus on positive experiences and outcomes during your day. Positive affirmations help the brain to relieve stress and keep the mind form spiraling into stressful negative thought patterns.
Identify which habits work best for you. Keep a stress symptom journal to pinpoint:
- Source of stress
- How you reacted
- How it felt
- What you did to feel better
Monitor these over time as you test out the 9 different techniques to relieve stress.