Stress: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Many situations and events can cause us to feel stressed! Stress, sadly, has almost become a part of our everyday life! Exams, deadlines, family, work, money, trauma, health problems, lack of sleep, excess physical exertion, noise pollution, violent movies and video games. Another important yet forgotten stressor is excess worry where there is an imagined threat, often nicknamed the ‘what if’ thinking trap. I have seen many people who have told me they have no immediate problems but they feel stressed, this is often due to time spent worrying about what could happen as opposed to what is actually happening. Even this imagined threat can elicit a stress response.

Stress in small doses has a key importance in keeping us safe and ready for action in the face of danger or in motivating us to get necessary things done. Our bodies are designed to respond to stress and make necessary changes when needed. It can help us finish that report, finalise that assignment, concentrate for that exam or run from danger. Stress becomes a problem when the stress extends over a period of time without adequate rest and relaxation. So many of us just don’t know how to switch off and just be still to allow our bodies to switch down a few gears and relax!

Unfortunately people often use food, drugs and/or alcohol to help aid in their relaxation. Using substances such as these will further aggravate physical and emotional symptoms that are caused from stress.

Stress can affect your outlook, thoughts, feelings and your physical health! Stress can cause a range of symptoms from immediate effects such as insomnia, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches and pains, fatigue, changes in libido, digestive upsets, lack of motivation and concentration, restlessness, irritability, anger, depression, palpitations, poor skin health,  immune suppression, hair loss, increased or decreased appetite, drug or alcohol abuse and more longer term effects such as accelerated aging, high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, diabetes and it can also aggravate many other inflammatory health conditions and diseases. (Yes! All of those things!)

Stress hormones are predominately produced in the adrenal glands which are little glands sitting above your kidneys. These hormones are responsible for the physical and emotional changes seen during periods of stress.

The 3 main stress hormones are:

Adrenaline (also called epinephrine)

–          Increases your heart rate

–          Elevates your blood pressure

–          Increases your breathing rate

–          Boosts energy supplies

–          Increases your senses, strength and stamina

Noradrenaline (also called norepinephrine)

–          Increases focus and concentration

–          Boosts energy

–          Increases blood flow to the heart and muscle

Cortisol (short-term effects)

–          Increases your blood sugar levels

–          Controls fluid balance and blood pressure

–          Increases your concentration

–          Reduces pain sensitivity 

Cortisol over a longer period suppresses your non-immediate essential systems in the body such as the immune system, the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth and repair processes. It also can cause:

–          Increases in visceral and abdominal fat

–          Reduced thyroid function

–          Hyperglycaemia

–          Poor wound healing and tissue repair

–          Poor digestion and upsets

–          Suppressed immunity against infections

–          Reduced bone density and muscle tissue

–          Lack of memory and concentration

It is impossible to avoid stress completely! How we handle stress is paramount for a healthy happy life! Stress management is the key for lasting good health and happiness.

Follow these important guidelines to practice stress management:

1.       Exercise – this will help reduce those excessive circulating hormones as well as improving mood and supporting relaxation.

2.       Plenty of good quality sleep – this also allows the body to enjoy adequate rest and rejuvenation and a reduction in stress hormones.

3.       A healthy balanced diet – certain vitamins, minerals and healthy fats are specific for supporting adrenal health such as Vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium and other electrolytes.

4.       Relaxation techniques – breathing exercises, calming thoughts and visions, relaxation CDs, mediation, yoga, massage, gardening, reading and music all help reduce circulating stress hormones.

5.       Talking to people you trust – family, friends, and professional counsellors. Studies support decreases in cortisol and increases in oxytocins (love hormone) levels after talking or hugging loved ones.

6.       Belly laughing and sometimes a good old cry – both of these actions have been shown to reduce elevated stress hormones.

Remember to breathe, relax and let your body rest!