Given the general state of things, you are probably familiar with the word ‘stress’. While stress is a part of life, ongoing, frequent or severe stress can be mentally and physically harmful. We all have different experiences and ways of managing stress, but taking care of ourselves and looking after your wellness is an important part of keeping healthy during stressful times. In this month’s blog posts, I’ll be talking about the changes that happen in the body when we experience stress and offer some helpful strategies for reducing its impact. While we can’t eliminate stress, it is possible to understand it better, manage it and reduce the impact on our health, and still find amazing moments in our world.
What is stress?
Stress is a part of life, but ongoing, frequent or severe stress can be mentally and physically harmful, putting us at risk of significant health problems.
Stress from a physiological perspective
Stress is a normal biological response to a perceived threat or challenge. You may be familiar with the physiological flight or fight process – your central nervous system is in charge of your body preparing to either flee or protect yourself (evolutionarily designed to happen in dangerous situations). The brain releases chemicals and hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These get your heart beating faster and send blood to muscles and important organs. This generates a sense of energy and a heightened awareness so you can focus on your immediate needs.
Normally after this response ends, your body begins to repair itself, heart rate and breathing should slow down and your muscles relax. This should happen without any lasting negative effects.
What if the stress response doesn’t end?
Some stressful situations continue for extended periods. If you don’t resolve the stress and your body remains in this state of high alert, it eventually adapts to a higher stress level. Your body goes through changes to attempt to cope with stress. This may not be noticeable but the underlying impact is happening. Levels of stress hormone and blood pressure can remain elevated. You might find you are having difficulty concentrating, are feeling irritable and get more easily frustrated.
Over time, struggling with stress is exhausting physically and mentally. It can lead to a state of exhaustion. The impact of this can present as fatigue, decreased stress tolerance and lead to diagnoses such as depression, anxiety and burnout.
The physical impact of stress can also weaken your immune system, contribute to intestinal problems and put you at an increased risk of other health conditions (such as insomnia, headaches, heart attack, stroke).
Stress hormones in more detail
When you sense danger, the hypothalamus at the base of your brain reacts. It sends nerve and hormone signals to your adrenal glands, which release an abundance of hormones. These hormones are the body’s natural way of preparing you to face danger and increase survival. One of these hormones is adrenaline. Although adrenaline is important, it isn’t the primary stress hormone. That’s cortisol.
What are the functions of cortisol?
When the adrenal glands release cortisol into your bloodstream, the hormone triggers a flood of glucose that supplies an immediate energy source to your large muscles. It also inhibits insulin production so the glucose won’t be stored but will be available for immediate use.
Cortisol plays an important role in the stress response. It also does the following: (adapted from healthline.com)
- Alters the immune system response
- Aids the release of tissue repair processes
- Restrains functions that are nonessential in an emergency situation
- Dampens the reproductive system and growth process
- Affects parts of the brain that control fear, motivation, and mood
All of this helps your body in a high stress situation and is aimed to assist survival.
What happens when cortisol stays high?
This is when it can have a negative impact on your health. High cortisol levels can contribute to weight gain, insomnia, high blood pressure, fatigue, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, brain fog, memory problems, and weakened immunity leaving you more prone to infections. It can also have an impact on your mood. Prolonged stress is also associated with conditions such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
In our next blog post, I’ll go into things you can do to help bring the stress levels down, in the meantime check out our Facebook and Insta during the month – they will also be filled with helpful hints and information.