Stressors come in various forms. These can be physical (illness, pain, injuries) or psychological (worry, fears). They can be real or imagined. Wherever the origin of stress, the effects of stress on the body are the same.
Stress activates our sympathetic nervous system, our flight or fight response. While all stress will effect the body, throwing it out of homeostasis or balance, different stressors will have differing effects on this balance. The more you ‘fear’ the stressor or you believe it to be the most harmful, the larger the stress response elicited within the body.
Now many will understand the terms stress and flight or fight. At some stage or another we have all experienced the feeling of stress or that flight or fight response. But I find those who understand the mechanism of how this effects our body have a better ability to move from the ‘stressed-out’ sympathetic state into a calmer parasympathetic state.
So a quick biochemistry lesson
Our central nervous system has main two arms, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These are otherwise known as our flight and fight response and our rest and digest response. The critical thing to know here is that these systems can not work together. When our sympathetic or flight and fight response is active our body cannot be in our parasympathetic or rest and digest state.
In the flight and fight state our bodies work to preserve what was essential to our survival. This survival mechanism is 1000’s of years old. It works to keep us safe in times of famine, floods, fire and attack from other tribes or animals. It up regulates the resources in our bodies to react and get away quickly, therefore directly all of our blood and nutrients to our arms and legs to help us run, fight etc. Or during times of famine our body would slow our metabolic rate down to help us preserve what stores (body fat for energy and warmth) and nutrients we had to ensure we lived.
Considering this it is easy to see that our body would not be using resources for ‘non-essential’ activities such as digesting our food, making our sex hormones and turning on our immune response. All of these activities happen in our rest and digest state.
Feelings of stress have a wide influence over most of our body systems and functions. This is controlled by two main stress hormones – adrenalin and cortisol – both which communicate different messages to our body.
This is our short term stress hormone. You would have experienced this in all it’s glory when you walk into a room and someone frightens you. The result is mainly physical – your heart races, your blood pumps faster, blood sugar levels increase, you can feel jittery and it can be difficult to calm down. This does not provide for any long term concern as long as the danger passes quickly. Unfortunately today many people don’t recognise this has occurred as it is the norm. In the current climate of uncertainty this could be occurring on a day to day basis for some.
In the past that danger was always over relatively quickly – we either escaped, died or won the fight. There isn’t much in our lives today that put us into danger in the same life threatening way. However the ‘danger’ that our body responds too is from psychological stress (or caffeine…). This produces adrenalin and the hormone communicates to every cell in our body that our life is at risk. Unfortunately for many this psychological stress is never switched off. In the current climate of uncertainty this could be occurring on a day to day basis for some.
Psychological stress could take the following forms
– You are trying to work from home and juggle home schooling for kids
– You have been temporarily laid off from work with uncertainty about your income
– General feelings of worry and concern about loved ones or even leaving the house
– You may have hit snooze one too many times and you are now running late for work.
– It could even come from a moment of looking at a social media post, then looking at your own life and the feelings this stirs up in you…
I used the word ‘danger’ in adverted commas earlier for a good reason. There is a big difference between the danger we experienced the past and the ‘danger’ we are experiencing today. The biochemical changes that occur from the production of adrenalin – the blood diverting away from our digestive system, increased heart rate and blood glucose levels, they served a very useful purpose to help us physically escape from the dangers of the past. However if your ‘danger’ comes whilst juggling life, scrolling through your social media feeds or even from that caffeine hit, your body doesn’t actually need this extra supply of blood to your arms and legs. It doesn’t use the extra glucose in your blood. Our bodies instead sends out insulin to deal with the high blood sugar level that hasn’t been used. Now insulin tells our body to store fat, not utilise it. This can set us up for blood sugar crashes or energy crashes later in the day, resulting in reaching for more caffeine or sugar to ‘fix it’. When this cycle is on constant repeat it can set us up for metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It can also be detrimental to our hormones – for both men and women.
This is our long term stress hormone. This hormone came into play during times when food was scarce such as famine, floods and wars. This historically was the only time we would experience long term stress. Long term stress in today society however comes in the form of relationships, financial pressures, friendships, health or our body shape and weight. There is a constant monologue in most peoples minds of not being good enough or not having enough (insert anything in here) or being generally worried about something day in day out. This can easily lead to a state of chronic stress and increased cortisol in the body. This signals to our bodies to change where we store fat, our metabolism and our energy.
Cortisol tells every cell in our bodies that food is scarce and as we are wired for survival our body slows down our metabolism. By doing this you preserve your bodies main source of energy and warmth, your fat stores. To help keep our nutrient supply up cortisol signals the breakdown of our muscles. The less muscle we have the less energy we burn, the more fat stores we keep. Can you see the cycle emerging. All this can happen whilst you are sat on your bottom worrying about finances or a relationship.
In today’s society we are all very aware that carrying too much body fat is not ideal, both from a health and vanity standpoint. High levels of cortisol can be a challenge for those who equate eating less with loosing weight. If you reduce your calorie consumption whilst cortisol is high you have just confirmed what your body already thinks – food is scarce… and your metabolism will slow further. The key here is not to eat less but change your energy source – your food – to be nutrient dense. Fill your plate with lots of colourful vegetables, nuts and seeds, good quality protein and fats like olive oil and avocados.
A simple technique to reduce the effects of stress
The best treatment for stress reduction of any kind is breathing – specifically diaphragmatic breathing. This involves breathing into your tummy. Many people when beginning this practice will struggle to get their breath past their heart. This is ok. Like anything new, it will be about practice. You may need to unlearn a pattern that your body has been in for a long time now. Always approach anything new with kindness and curiosity.
You can be either sitting or lying down for this.
- Place your hands on your lower belly, just above your pubic bone.
- Now take a breath in and imagine your breath reaching down into the spot in your belly under your hands.
- Continue to breath in until your breath has filled up the your whole tummy, from the spot beneath your hands to under your ribcage, then into your chest expanding your ribcage.
- Pause here.
- Then slowly release the breath back out in the opposite direction. Releasing it from your chest allowing your ribcage to contract back, then emptying your tummy from the top, down to the spot under your hands.
This may feel tricky or uncomfortable at first. If this is the case for you, start with moving your tummy in and out as you breath. Then as you continue to practice you will find it easier to fill your tummy and your chest up in a nice smooth controlled rhythm. The key is to extend your exhalation
We cannot avoid stress. And neither should we. It has a very real and important role to play. We do need to become more aware of when it is occurring and what is triggering it. Then take some simple measures to address the trigger and bring ourselves back into our parasympathetic – rest and digest – state. You may like to try out this tea meditation as a way of also reducing the effects of stress on the body.