You & stress: What it is & the problem with modern-day stress

beating stress article and tips

Hand’s up who’s stressed? Mmm, I though so. 

Stress has come to be synonymous with life. Most people are pretty stressed most of the time but we don’t stop to question it. 

So Stop. Right now. Because I want you to question it. You need to question it. 

What does ‘stress’ actually mean? What does it mean to your body? What does it mean to your health and wellbeing? 

Yea, so we all know that ‘stress is bad for us’, but most of us don’t actually know why or how this is so. 

‘Stress’ is the biggest cause of disease in the Western world. It’s an insidious and sly health-wrecker. If you understand more about what stress is and how it affects you, then you are in a much more powerful position to get a handle on it. As i’m always saying, meaning motivates. 

Knowledge is power. 

So what exactly is ‘stress?’ 

Stress is notoriously difficult to define. That’s because in our modern-day, colloquial use of the word, (‘jeez, I’m so stressed out!’) it’s subjective. Stress affects us all differently and what one person deems ‘stressful’ (like white-water rafting), another person deems fun and exhilarating. 

Even the famous stress-physiologist Hans Seyle, who spent his life researching the topic, said:

‘everyone knows what stress is but no one really knows’.  

Seriously?

But there are a couple of useful definitions that help to shed some much-needed light…

From a physiological point of view, stress is defined as;

“any threat (real or imagined) to the homeostasis of any organism”. 

Yikes. Okay. 

Well for those of you who were attentive in your biology class, you’ll remember that homeostasis (from the Greek ‘homeo’ = similar; ‘stasis’ = standing still) is the process by which the body maintains its internal environment. This includes variables such as blood pressure, body temperature, blood glucose, blood pH, energy balance etc. In fact, homeostasis is all about balance. If our homeostasis is under threat, so is our survival, because our survival depends on it. 

So we could reword this definition to say that: 

‘Stress is any threat (real or imagined) to the survival of an organism’.  

This definition makes sense from a physiological perspective, but seems to miss a pretty big part of ‘stress’ as it’s used by most people (who aren’t scientists in white lab coats studying rats in a maze). I.e the psychological/emotional aspect

When we use the word ‘stress’ to describe a feeling, it denotes a sense of tension and mental/emotional strain. 

A popular definition for psychological stress is: 

‘a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize.’

Basically when we feel like we can’t cope with sh*t. 

Which really all boils down to a sense of lacking control. 

With these definitions in mind, lets take a closer look at what happens in your body during the stress response… 

The perfect way to out-run a sabre-tooth tiger or catch your dinner

Firstly, the stress response is non-specific. Which actually means its pretty crude. It isn’t sensitive to the kind of stress we are suffering from. Whether physical, psychological, real or imagined, the stress response will be the same – altering in intensity but not type/quality. And as you will come to understand, this is No Good Thing. nuh-uh. 

The stress response is synonymous with the good old fight-or-flight response that we’ve all heard of and experienced. 

This is our body’s primitive and automatic reaction to any perceived danger that may pose a threat to our survival. It’s great for out-running a safer-tooth tiger but it’s not so great for our modern day stressors, as you will come to understand shortly. 

So how does it work? 

It all starts with the perception of danger/threat, which as you will remember, can be real or imagined. 

This is perceived either by our senses (such as hearing a loud bang or seeing that your rival has a better business card than you) or simply by our thought processes (e.g worrying about whether your very new boyfriend noticed that old Shania Twain album on the dash in your car). 

Battle or bail…And quickly

When our senses perceive danger (or when our mind conjures it up) a distress signal is sent to an area in our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is the part of our brain involved in our automatic emotional processing and our fear response. 

The amygdala then sends a signal to the hypothalamus – the command centre of the brain – which communicates with the rest of the body via the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system. 

Once the hypothalamus has been stimulated by the amygdala, it sends a signal via the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands (located on top of the kidneys). The adrenal glands then release a surge of adrenaline that courses through the blood and activates our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). 

This reaction, from sense perception/thought to adrenaline release, happens so efficiently and automatically that it by-passes the conscious processing of our higher brain. This is what allows us to instinctively act before thought. Like those times when you jump out of the way of an oncoming car or move your hand from a hot baking tray before you have had the time to even register it.

Keeping the pressure on

After the initial surge of adrenaline release and the activation of the SNS, the hypothalamus activates another part of the stress axis, known as the HPA axis. 

The HPA axis comprises the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland (in the brain) and the adrenal glands, and its role is to keep the accelerator pedal pushed down and sustain the stress response until the jobs done. 

With HPA activation, the hypothalamus sends a message to the pituitary to release a hormone called ACTH. This hormone then makes its way to the adrenal glands where it stimulates the release of cortisol and a cocktail of other hormones that help address the stressful situation.

On alert and ready for (almost) anything

The action of the SNS and the HPA axis are responsible for all of the immediate physiological effects and feelings of the stress response including: 

  • Increased blood pressure (so that more blood is pumped around the body with every beat of the heart, delivering more oxygen and nutrients)
  • Blood is shunted away from our digestive system (we wont be needing that to run from a lion!)
  • Airways in the lungs dilate (so we can inhale more vital oxygen in every breath)
  • More blood is directed to our limbs and our muscles (so we can run longer and faster)
  • Pupils dilate (so we can see better)
  • Extra oxygen is sent to the brain (to increase alertness)
  • Endorphins are released (the body’s natural pain-killers, important if we are hurt but need to keep running away from that sabre-tooth tiger)
  • Increased basal metabolic rate (providing us with more available energy)
  • Increased insulin resistance (to keep more glucose in the bloodstream and therefore increase available energy)
  • Immune system and inflammatory response is activated – with the release of the inflammatory chemicals
    • IL-1, IL-6, TNF-a, INF-y. (These are merciless warriors, ready to defeat any invading pathogen that may come our way).

This reaction and its dramatic effects on our physiology have been shaped by millions of years of evolutionary pressure to help us survive. 

They are all desirable outcomes yet only when they take place as our design would have it –  in the short term. The stress response has saved the life of so many of our species that it’s safe to say I would not be sitting here writing this if the stress response didn’t exist. 

And when it’s all over, breathe

After the threat has passed, cortisol levels drop, the activity of the SNS falls and our relaxation response – orchestrated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) – kicks in. We return to a relaxed yet energised baseline (or at least, we should). 

The problem with modern-day stress

The thing is, the stress response was designed in an era of our evolutionary past when our environment was massively different. 

Most importantly, it was designed to help us survive physical stressors in the short term. So that’s things like being able to outrun predators (y’know, all those saber-tooth tigers that were just mulling around), being able to survive an acute infection following an open wound, being able to mobilise large amounts of energy in the final sprint to catch dinner for the week…You get the picture. All very physical. All very real. All very short-term

Fast-forward a few million years and the stress response hasn’t changed, but the kind of stress we are suffering from (in the Western world, at least), couldn’t be more different. 

Physically, our lives are pretty easy. We sit on our bottoms to get to work, we sit on our bottoms all day when we are at work, we can get our dinner delivered to our door, we don’t have to outrun predators (well, there are times), infection and physical wounds are not rife. The wounds we suffer are emotional ones, of the heart. 

So yes, we have a physically very convenient (and super-s{l}ick) lifestyle that is, on-the-whole, free from the kind of acute short-term stressors that our ancestors would have suffered (and importantly, those which the stress response was actually designed for). 

But we are suffering more than ever from a chronic and low-grade activation of the stress response. The kind of stress that persists. The kind that’s unrelenting. The kind that day-by-day depletes and fatigues us. 

The kind that kills. 

Chronic stress – it’s not always what you think it is 

I sat down with a patient the other day who was overweight (in fact Class 1 obese as a BMI measure would have it) and very insulin resistant. Her diet consisted of carbohydrates, carhohydrates and oh yeah, more carbohydrates; toast and jam for brekki, heaps of pasta for lunch, pizza for dinner. 

I explained to her that her body was in a chronic state of stress. 

“But wait” she exclaimed, “I’m not stressed!” 

Despite the obvious irony of her alarmed exclamation, she had a complete misunderstanding of the term ‘stress’. Because she didn’t feel chronically ‘stressed’ – as she perceived that word – she failed to understand that in fact, she was suffering from a huge amount of stress, of the physiological kind. 

I went on to explain that her diet (being loaded with carbohydrates and lacking proper protein, healthy fats and vegetables) was putting a huge amount of stress on her body. In particular the stress of having to balance her acutely disrupted blood sugar and insulin levels. This, I continued, was activating a stress response in a similar way as would happen when one feels emotionally overwhelmed with deadlines and a nasty boss at work. High glucose and insulin levels in the blood are a threat to survival. So the stress response is activated. 

“Ah, okay. Yes I get it now….But it’s weird because I’m not stressed”. No comment. 

So as you can see, stress isn’t always what you think it is.

Know the cause, change the course

5 of the biggest causes of chronic stress are

  • Nutritional: 
    • Macronutrient – a deficiency of any of the macronutrients – protein, fats and carbohydrates
    • micronutrient  – a deficiency of essential minerals and/or vitamins
  • Physical – excessive exercise, lack of sleep
  • Psychological/emotional – low self-esteem, lack of close relationships, worry, rumination, depression 
  • Chemical – smoking, excess alcohol, toxin overload (pollution, mercury/heavy metals, pesticides, pharmacologic drug side-effects/toxicity)
  • psycho-spiritual – feeling unaligned with your life’s purpose, lacking meaning in life, feeling stagnant and static in your progression/self-development

Why chronic stress is a menace to our health and happiness

Well-meaning but ill-judged

Chronic stress is a bit like that well-meaning over-protective friend who, despite their best intentions, only serves to highlight your problems with their over-bearing indignancy on your behalf. Sure, they mean well, and sure, you’re boyfriend really could have spent more money on your 30th birthday present (didn’t he just get a bonus for Christ’s sake! And after all you do for him…I mean, seriously, it makes me so mad! You can do so much better. He can’t even put the toilet seat down when you ask him to! And didn’t he forget it was your second-cousins wedding anniversary the other day too?…) but by banging on about it ad infinitum and getting inappropriately angry about your problems, they only serve to make matters feel a whole lot worse, all the while thinking they are being a good friend.

Chronic stress doesn’t know its ruining your health. Its just doing it’s job. Your old primal brain just doesn’t ‘get’ that persistent, low level stress (especially of the psychological kind) really doesn’t warrant a fight or flight response. It’s like cleaning your teeth with toilet bleach and a scouring brush. 

When the stress response is activated over a long time scale it depletes the body, interrupts the healthy functioning of our organs and disrupts our whole endocrine (hormonal) system.  

In particular, chronic low-level stress keeps the amygdala switched on. This means that we become far more vigilant and hypersensitive to signals of potential threat in our environment.

I used to live with a woman who would scream and literally jump out of her skin if you passed her on the stairs when she wasn’t expecting it. It happened all the time. Her amgydala was in complete overdrive. The problem with this is that we can start to live life on a wire, being hyper-aware of potential ‘danger’ and unconsciously reacting when no real threat exists. 

With chronic stress the HPA axis is also activated, which means that our adrenal glands are working over time to pump out cortisol and adrenaline. This not only has detrimental effects on our immune system but also on our sex hormone balance, our blood pressure, our bones as well as brain health.  Chronic over activation of the HPA axis is also responsible for Adrenal Fatigue. 

Low level chronic stress also causes persistent surges in adrenaline, which can damage arteries and blood vessels and increase our risk for stroke and heart disease. 

So when we say ‘stress kills’, what we really mean is that chronic stress kills. (Acute stress can save lives). 

Heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline and dementia, insulin resistance, cancer, infertility, autoimmune conditions, weight gain, depression and anxiety. You name it. Stress has got it covered. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Check back in a couple of days for 7 of the best ways to alleviate chronic stress and get your mojo back. 

(I’m really sorry to leave this carrot dangling, but I wouldn’t keep you in suspense if not for 3 very good reasons…

  1. This article is already long enough! I think you need a break. 
  2. I want to give you time to digest and process what you have just read.
  3. I want you to come back and see me again! 

So check back in a few days for the follow up and learn how help reduce the damaging effects of chronic stress. And if you don’t want to miss it, make sure you sign up to my site here or to the right-hand box on the homepage). 

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