Most people are familiar with the signs, symptoms and effects of stress on the mind, emotions, body and behaviour. Stress manifests differently in everyone, so each person has their own strategy for dealing with stress.
Some strategies are temporary and often semi-unconscious "feel good now" fixes in reaction to the stress (e.g. having a glass of wine or a cigarette) whilst others are part of a conscious stress management strategy such as regular exercise, meditation or other relaxation strategy.
Everyone goes through periods of stress. And often, we deal with stress daily. Whether its dealing with slow peak hour traffic when you're already late for work, deadlines or exams, bills, kids, partners, negative self talk... the list can go on and on.
Life events can also contribute to chronic stress. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale is a popular tool for measuring life event stress in the past year, and can also give an indication of whether you are at risk of developing a stress related illness.
We are designed to deal with stress, however we do not always manage our stress optimally (or even consciously, for that matter!), and can end up dealing with the effects of chronic exhaustion and its broad array of manifestations such as illness, adrenal fatigue, depression, anxiety, weight problems and hormonal imbalances, just to name a few!
If you are suffering from the effects of stress, read on to learn exactly how stress effects you. In the next blog, I will share with you some strategies for managing stress successfully.
Stress by definition, is tension or pressure placed on an object. In human terms, stress is the response to pressure... and therefore creates internal and external tension - in our muscles, how we feel, and in our thoughts.
Stress can be produced by both internal and external stimuli.
Did you know that some stress is actually necessary for performance and moving forwards in our lives?
Stress and Performance
There is an optimal zone for function - sometimes referred to as "the zone", in which a certain amount of stress can benefit us and improve our performance. If you look at the "Stress Curve" shown above, you will notice that in the green zone, performance is low as there is not enough activity going on to stimulate the desired response.
However in the yellow zone, there is enough stress to improve our mental abilities such as focus and concentration, as well as enhance the ability to move. Once you reach the top of the bell curve, fatigue sets in and this is the point that you want to pull back from going over the other side into the orange and red zones.
When fatigue sets in, we go into exhaustion as our system struggles to cope with too much pressure and tension. At this point, we are not only physically exhausted, but also mentally and emotionally as well. If we enter the red zone, we may lose control of our emotional and mental state, and can be at risk for developing illness, as burn-out is the result of energy depletion.
The nervous system supervises the body's response to stress, as well as controlling the body’s reactions afterwards.
Our nervous system is split into two main groups - the Central Nervous System (CNS) which comprises of the brain and the spinal cord, and the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS) which is a large network of nerves throughout the rest of the body. This is our main control centre for messages and communication throughout the body.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is part of the CNS. It is split into two divisions - the Sympathetic Nervous System (sNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PsNS). These two divisions are responsible for handling our response to stress. The SNS becomes active as a response to a perceived stress. It acts like an "accelerator" to prepare the body to fight, flight or freeze - a necessary response when we perceive a threat to our survival.
Stress stimulates the CNS, preparing it to meet the needs of the stressful situation. The body undergoes physiological changes due to the activation of the sNS, as shown in the picture above. This system is activated whenever something causes us to perceive fear, terror, dread or danger. The heart rate increases to get more blood around the body, as well as activating the adrenal glands to release "stress" hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol.
The PsNS has an entirely different function - it is like putting on the brakes. It is responsible for preparing the body for rest and relaxation, as well as aiding digestion and elimination. It reduces the level of stress hormones in the blood stream and signals the heart to revert back to its normal rate.
Emotional stress produces a similar response in the nervous system, activating physiological changes.
Whenever we perceive a threat on an emotional or mental level, the body releases cortisol and the stress response is almost instant!
Normally, the body reverts back to its normal state after a certain period of time after the stressor has disappeared. However, if there is a constant barrage of stressful thoughts and emotions, reverting the physiology back to a state of balance is not possible. Over time, chronic stress - can lead to many health problems.
Ongoing stress tells the sympathetic nervous system that you need to be kept in a state of alert all the time, which does not allow the parasympathetic nervous system to activate the rest/relaxation response. If the body is not given the chance to go through the rest phase, the body systems that are suspended during the stress response cannot be resumed effectively.
Digestion is very often compromised by the effects of stress, as the body cannot effectively break down, absorb, and utilise the nutrients that are ingested if the PsNS is not active. It is SO IMPORTANT to be able to relax when you eat! If you are not getting adequate nutrition from the foods you eat, then you are further compromising your body's ability to cope with stress.
Since modern life is full of daily challenges, stress is something that everyone deals with. Admittedly, it is impossible to avoid stress totally. Learning to manage your stress levels sends signals to the central nervous system that help the body get back to its original relaxed state. Taking an active role in managing your stress is a vital part of learning to be healthy, and is something that you can do to help yourself daily.
Stay tuned for the next blog: strategies to manage stress!