Let's Talk About Stress!
Let’s talk about stress! We all have an idea of what stress is, and how it makes us feel, but do we truly understand what is going on in our mind and body when we are under stress? More importantly, do we know how to naturally combat stress as it creeps into our daily existence? After reading this TWO PART blog, and adding some easy stress-mediating strategies into our daily lives, we will.
75-90% of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related complaints or disorders…
So, if we are ALL experiencing stress, we had better understand what stress is doing to our bodies!
In our lives today, we are constantly stressed. It may be a major event, or it may be a number of minor events that lead to triggering a stress response. Stress can be mental, emotional, physical, or environmental. Maybe it’s one of those days when the refrigerator breaks, the dog made a mess in the house, you leave your cell phone at home and are stuck in traffic and late for work because of the refrigerator and dog, and the school nurse has been trying to reach you because your son is sick… Sounds stressful.
In addition to daily life stress, there are physiological stressors at work in our bodies. Maybe our blood sugar levels are out of whack because we haven’t had a chance to eat all day. Neurotransmitter levels may be off because of inflammation in our gut. We may be eating foods we have are sensitive to, but are unaware of. Maybe there is constant inflammation in our body because of toxic overload. Your naturopathic physician can evaluate your physiological stress load so that you can focus on dealing with mental and emotional stressors.
Stress is defined as any change in the environment (mechanical, chemical, electromagnetic, thermal, psychological, etc) that provokes a stress response. A stress response is an automatic response to any stimulus (traffic, an argument with a loved one, illness, heat or cold, toxins, physical trauma, etc). The goal of the stress response is to return the body to normal balance after being triggered to react to the environment. Stress can be minor, major, good, or bad. It can also be perceived or anticipated (that looming deadline, or upcoming test).
When we talk about stress, we often talk about the “fight or flight response.” During this response to stress (such as fleeing from a bear - I am going to assume none of us will stay to fight the bear!) your body is utilizing your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to initiate various hormone messengers and processes in the body leading to: mobilizing energy to muscles, diverting energy from non-essential tasks such as growth and digestion, sharpened senses, increased blood sugars and fats, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and lowered sexual arousal. This is the opposite of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is responsible for relaxation, digestion, repair, and maintenance. In the second part of this blog, I will teach you how to activate your PNS to combat stress.
We NEED stress at some times in life to let us know there is a threat to our security or safety (that bear lurking around our camp site). However, this should just be a short-term response to motivate us into action (run), and redirect our energy to concentrate on that action (run far, and fast). However, if we are constantly activating our SNS (through daily life stress), then all of the physiological reactions mentioned above will start to take a toll on our bodies because we are not actually running from (or fighting) anything.
Scientist Hans Selye, “the father of stress research,” introduced the model of General Adaptation Syndrome in 1936. He formulated the theory that stress is a major cause of disease because chronic stress causes long-term chemical changes in the body. The initial alarm reaction, or fight or flight response activates the SNS and adrenal glands and releases the stress hormones cortisol, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine. This happens immediately in response to stress to provide instant energy. If that energy is not used up (there is no bear, and you’re reacting to a traffic jam with road rage) then it can become harmful increasing blood pressure, and leading to conditions such as ulcers, stroke, or high blood sugar levels. The body tends to go through a resistance reaction during which the stress is resolved and stress hormones return to normal. If this doesn’t happen, then you enter the exhaustion stage. This is called stress overload, burnout, or adrenal fatigue and is when stress goes up and STAYS UP. This is the most detrimental phase to your health and can increase risk of anxiety, depression, memory loss, and heart disease.
Some symptoms associated with stress include: fatigue, anxiety, heart disease, weakness, low libido, pain, irritable bowels, poor concentration, addiction, moodiness, difficulty making decisions, just to name a few! When your body has actually reached adrenal fatigue, then you may notice you’re craving salt, experiencing excessive fatigue, feeling an afternoon low or needing a nap, craving sugar, addicted to caffeine, dizzy upon standing. When your adrenal glands are fatigued, they can’t regulate homeostasis and get your body back to balance. As adrenal function is reduced every organ and system in your body is profoundly affected.
When you are continually stressed, you are leaving your body open and vulnerable. The physical strain of stress combines with the mental and emotional, taking a toll on us that is hard to recover from. As stress builds up, and we encounter more and more stressors, we are less able to adapt and overcome. When stress increases above your threshold of resistance, then you are more likely to become sick.
We live in very uncertain times; bankruptcy, market crashes, losing jobs, getting into college, finding a life partner, raising (and worrying) about children. Uncertainty can also trigger the fight or flight stress response in much the same way that running from a bear can. We so often say, “It is the not knowing that is the worst.” When you’re UNSURE how to react, UNABLE to prepare, and UNABLE to REASSURE yourself and your family, the stress response can be immense. Make sure to read my next blog, which will focus in detail on stress management tools you can start doing today to increase your resistance to stress and achieve optimal health.
Part two of this blog will focus on EIGHT HEALTHY STRESS MANAGEMENT TOOLS:
Perform a stress relaxation technique or breathing exercise daily
Engage in regular exercise
Create a healthy social support system
Support your adrenal glands with nutrients and herbs, reduce stress with supplements and homeopathy
Avoid chemical stressors
Get adequate sleep
Eat a whole foods, nutrient dense diet and drink enough water