So we know stress is bad for us – while we may feel it manifesting internally, with emotional symptoms such as: irritability, frustration, a short temper, a feeling of being overwhelmed by small problems, low mood, resentment of others, an inability to focus or helplessness – to name just a few; stress also makes itself known to us in a very physical way.
To understand the physical effects of stress, we first need to know what ‘stress’ is, and what happens in our bodies when we feel it.
‘Stress’ is anything which activates the ‘fight or flight response’ within the body.
This response is something which is a reaction of the more primitive area of the brain – left over from when we had real situations that required us to need to fight or flee. We may have evolved leaps and bounds in terms of technology and communication, but our bodies haven’t yet caught up with the pace of modern life, and we pay the price when we don’t realise this….
So what actually happens when this fight or flight response occurs within us?
When something potentially stressful happens, we begin to activate an area of our brain called the ‘hypothalamus’ – a part that produces hormones which control our mood, body temperature, sex drive, hunger, thirst, sleep cycles, and the pituitary gland – also known as the ‘master gland’ as it controls so much within us.
When we experience stress, the hypothalamus sends a message to the sympathetic nervous system (which aids in the control of most of our internal organs and is more associated with fight or flight response). This message has a massive effect; initially it creates huge amounts of tension, makes us more alert, and speeds up our reaction time – after all, if you need to fight or flee, you need to be ready, and the body no longer worries about protecting you from illness – but it also does a few other things, and these can have a detrimental effect if we allow stress to continue for a long period of time…
- Increased heart rate
- Secretion of cortisol
- Reduction of sex drive and production of sex hormones
- Increased breathing rate (usually accompanied by short and shallow breaths)
- Muscle contraction and tension
- Decreased ability to learn new things
- Memory impairment
- Lowers immune system
- Increased sensitivity to pain
And these are to name but just a few….
The recognisable symptoms of stress?
Even if you don’t think stress is a major factor in your life, if you have a few of these symptoms it may be time to take a look at things and consider what could be a potential stressor in your life…
Common recognisable symptoms of stress include:
headaches, back pain, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitations, shallow breathing, tight neck and shoulder muscles, increased perspiration, ‘clammy’ palms and feet, diarrhoea or constipation, sudden weight gain or weight loss, insomnia or difficulty sleeping, fatigue, increased susceptibility to illness and infection, cravings for unhealthy and sugary foods, decreased libido.
Long term stress – when the fight or flight response is constantly activated – doesn’t give the body a chance to repair itself from the initial damage caused, and so we begin a vicious cycle, and the immune system in particular begins to suffer.
Long term stress can lead to severe anxiety, depression, cardiovascular diseases, and seemingly unexplainable weight gain.
So it’s pretty obvious that we don’t want stress to effect us in this way, and thankfully, there are a few things we can do to counteract stress, and get back to our healthy, natural and peaceful state of being:
They key to most of this is a sense of mindfulness; change your thoughts, change your life…. Our experience of the world around us is created by our thoughts and feelings. Our subconscious thoughts have a big part to play in the way we react to and deal with the situations presented to us., and changing the way we think can have a big impact on the amount of stress we feel. Pessimists, for example, are more likely to experience feelings of stress as they perceive a potentially stressful situation to be much more threatening than it needs to be. Optimists, on the other hand – usually report stronger immune systems, longer life expectancy, quicker recovery time from injury, lower stress levels, and an increased sense of overall wellbeing and quality of life.
Focussing on our breathing activates a more evolved part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain has a lot to do with emotions and wellbeing, and by activating it, we’re helping to reduce symptoms of stress.
Focussing especially on the exhale can calm things down in no time; practice inhaling for a count of 4, and exhaling for a count of 6 – repeat this for a while and you’ll notice the calming effects of the nervous system.
Get some perspective
Interestingly, the ‘top 10 most stressed-out’ countries listed by Bloomberg are:
Nigeria, South Africa, El Salvador, Mongolia, Guatemala, Colombia, Pakistan, Jamaica, Macedonia, and Bolivia; these are places in which the populations have real life-threatening stressors, although they’re also the countries who complain about stress the least and get the least help with dealing with stress. Perhaps it’s time we in the West changed our paradigm of what we consider to be ‘stressful’?
The chances are; if you have a safe place to live and food to eat, then you’re not facing life or death situations too often. Realise that the feeling of stress you’re experiencing – this fight or flight response – is intended for life or death situations. The situation you’re facing isn’t likely to be immediate life or death, so it becomes an unnecessary feeling that does not have to control you.
Get enough sleep
Sleep is important in regulating our stress levels, and getting enough of it ensures our minds are focussed, our energy levels are optimal, and our moods are stable. Aim for 7-9 hours per night.
Regulate your blood sugar
Unstable blood sugar levels usually encourage us to snack on refined, processed and sugary substances; these foods or drinks all contain a high glycemic Index, which gives us that initial boost of energy, but also means we face a crash soon after. Things with a low glycemic index keep us feeling calm and energised for longer periods of time and therefore help to greatly reduce feelings of stress and fatigue.
It’s useful to know which kinds of foods and drink are the best for our blood sugar, stress and energy levels, so here’s a few helpful examples:
High Glycemic Index:
Fizzy drinks, alcohol, white bread, white rice and white pasta, sugar (obviously), chocolate, cornflakes, pineapple, parsnips, white potato, and watermelon – just as a few examples of different kinds of substances.
Low Glycemic index:
Oats, barley, rye, sweet potato, peas, carrots, lentils, beans (not packaged baked beans) Chickpeas, wholemeal pasta, apples, plums, pears – just for a few examples.
If you’re consuming things with a high glycemic index, it’s a good idea to combine them with something of high-protein content, as this slows the release of those sugars and prevents that crash later.
Stop The Stimulants
So we feel tired, stressed or simply fed up – the usual go-to vice is coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, chocolate or drugs. While they initially relieve tension and stress, they ultimately just make the situation worse…. These substances stimulate the release of insulin and cortisol, which ends up making us feel more stressed over a period of time, as well as developing a dependency on these stimulants. The truth is; stimulants aren’t natural and your body is. You don’t need them! Yes, it’s difficult, especially if you consider yourself ‘addicted’ to something, but cutting out stimulants which you’re particularly dependent upon for just one month can have massively positive effects, and you’ll realise just how good you feel without filling your body with toxins.
Exercise such as running, yoga, swimming or dancing all encourage the release of endorphins – the ‘feel good hormone’. This chemical hormone block pain receptors to the brain and encourages a sense of wellbeing. Increasing regular amounts of exercise helps to clear toxins from the body, improve our ability to breathe well (which has a big impact on wellbeing), and decrease stress.
Stress, anxiety and depression are all linked to a breakdown in cell communication – when our body is having a hard time sending messages throughout the systems and doesn’t quite know what it should be doing…. Healthy fats like the ones found in nuts, seeds and avocado, help to keep cells healthy and allow them to communicate to each other efficiently. Healthy fats are especially important for good brain function and mood levels!
Think Positively & express gratitude
Studies have shown that expressing gratitude for the things we have in our lives helps to boost mood levels measurably, and thus decreasing feelings of stress; try practicing listing a few things you’re grateful for each night before you go to sleep –it’ll help you rest better, too.
Spending time in nature has shown to lower levels of bad cholesterol, blood pressure, and feelings of stress, depression and anxiety. Getting outside and surrounding yourself with a little bit of nature each day is important if you want to de-stress completely.
Take a break from Technology
So after you’ve finished reading this, take some time for yourself. (If you can)
Turn off the computer, the tv, or whatever else your eyes are usually glued to. Turn off your phone or at least put it on silent for a while, and do something purely for YOU. Get to know yourself the way you really are without adding anything to it.