1. What is stress?
By definition, stress can be physical or emotional and may have some environmental components too. It is characterized by a feeling of being overwhelmed by a hard to manage
The way our body and mind respond to stress is hugely unique to each and anyone of us and it depends on the environment we live in, our economic and social condition, any past traumas, our upbringing, characters and emotional growth, but also our genetics.
I am sure we all have experienced some form of stress during our lifetime, and we all know what stress is, as it literally hides everywhere: exams, job interviews, health problems, an imminent danger, financial troubles, excessive exercise, being stuck in traffic, a bullying co-worker, giving birth, but also being born etc.
Stress is, therefore, something we need to learn to deal with because it is virtually impossible to avoid.
2. The stress response
Stress is never only in your head. In fact, the feeling of being stressed involves specific physiological changes that will trigger the release of hormones and neurotransmitters, which during an acute accident, like been chased by a tiger, can save your life, literally. This is referred to as the “fight or flight” response: fight the danger back or run away from it. This acute stress response is activated by our sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates our adrenal glands to quickly release adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol, which both act as hormones and neurotransmitters. Their release into our bloodstream activates specific physiological changes:
- increase in blood pressure, by contracting the smooth muscles of the blood vessels, so to speed up nutrients and oxygen delivery;
- enhance of musculoskeletal and cardiac muscles contractility and their blood supply;
- boosting of lungs dilation, to keep up with increased oxygen demand;
- raise of blood sugar levels, through the promotion of glycolysis in the liver, in order for the body to sustain a higher energy expenditure.
In other words, during a “fight or flight” response your entire body is upgraded to a super human’s.
3. Health implications of chronic stress
Unfortunately, chronic stress can disrupt some very important bodily systems and functions. Our digestive system, for instance, is very susceptible to stress. In fact, stress can be responsible for: acid reflux, intestinal hyperpermeability (aka leaky gut syndrome), which may be linked to auto-immune conditions, decreased in colonic mucin production, which can result in colonic inflammation and inflammatory bowels diseases, peptic ulcers and other functional gastrointestinal disorders.
Another bodily system, which function is impaired by chronic stress is our reproductive system. Put it this way, Mather Nature is very smart and if you are chronically stressed she may not want you to add even more stress with pregnancy or after birth to your life, as you might just have enough energy for survival, but not for reproduction.
Our nervous, hormonal and immune system may also be negatively affected by prolonged high-stress levels. Stress can negatively affect sleep patterns and lack of sleep can increase stress levels. Stress is also associated with chronic inflammation, storage of abdominal fat and obesity, memory impairment and epigenetic changes, which, worst-case scenario, could lead to the development and spread of cancer cells.
4. You are in control
As I mentioned earlier, the perceived stress levels are very subjective. To certain extends we can control our response to stressors, especially those of a behavioural and psychological nature. For instance, you can consciously decide not to become affected by life situations that may otherwise raise feelings of anger, envy, sadness, guilt or anxiety. In other words, you won’t react to situations, but rather act upon them. You could perhaps simply accept the way things are and let go; that it is not your fault; you do not deserve to feel that way; the pain you are experiencing is not yours, but someone else’s. I will also suggest you read “there is no value in judging other people”, my insightful article on how to stay sane in an insane world.
5. A case study
I used to live in one of the largest, most populated, polluted and busy cities on the planet, London.
An exaggerated lifestyle scenario in London might look something like this:
“Waking up in the morning with the sound of a nasty alarm o’clock, before your body’s optimal needed rest time. Then we take a shower, which water contains chlorine, using the conventional shower gel and shampoo packed with chemicals. Then for breakfast, we make ourselves a tea using tap water and eating gluten-containing GMO cereals mixed with pro-inflammatory and hormonal disrupting cow’s milk.
While having our breakfast we have the news on, which will bombard our brains with junk information. Then we load our bodies with more chemicals found in conventional deodorants and other cosmetics. Then we get dressed and ready to live the house. Outside is raining, cold and perhaps still dark.
We walk down to the bus stop where we find the usual big queue of people and when we finally board the bus we are squashed up like sardines and people around us are constantly sneezing. We finally arrive at work, which we don’t enjoy anyway.
Our boss is not in a good mood and soon starts stressing us out with impossible tasks and deadlines, which won’t allow us to have a decent lunch break, which also means we won’t intake the right nutrients and therefore need to rely on coffees or other energy drinks to keep ongoing. Our colleagues also throw at us all the misery they experience in their lives.
At the end of our working day we really had enough and to cheer ourselves up we end up in a pub drinking and smoking with our fellow co-workers, which we, nevertheless, don’t enjoy the company of. Because we are so stressed and tired, we can’t be bothered to cook, so we buy ourselves a kebab with some chips on our way home and possibly more alcohol. Then we listen to more junk news or watch junk TV shows, put our acrylic pyjama on and before going to bed, we brush our teeth with fluoridated toothpaste. Good night! But we can’t sleep properly because we have poor sleep hygiene, are too stressed, have low magnesium intake and impaired melatonin production.
6. How to manage stress
Growth is always outside your comfort zone, so little doses of stress may be very valuable at times. Also, under a small amount of stress we might perform better, might be more focused and motivated. The problem lays within high-stress levels over a prolonged period of time, which may lead to health symptoms and eventually disease.
So, what to do? Here are a few ideas:
Be in control, DISCONNECT!
As mentioned earlier, you are totally in control of your own emotions. You are the only one responsible for your own feelings. You are the only one that allows circumstances to influence you, therefore how you respond to the environment is entirely and consciously up to you. So, please choose to emotionally disconnect and keep a positive mind set as much as possible! If you need a bit more guidance on this subject, I truly recommend Daniel Goleman’s book, “Emotional Intelligence”
Step back and RELAX!
Please, allow yourself to relax. The word “allow” here is the key. Allow yourself to have proper lunch breaks, to say “no” whenever is right to say so, to enjoy your weekends doing what YOU love, to spend your time with uplifting and nourishing people, to take a vacation by yourself.
So, as the stress bucket fills up, you must find ways to empty it.
I personally practice yoga, meditate, walk in the woods and read, in order to destress.
What you do to decrease your stress levels should ideally match what you love doing in your spare time, something you are passionate about, something that nourishes your body and mind, something that restores a sense of gratitude and peace. So, please, allow yourself to relax.
If you anyway are on a fast track at the moment and need extra help, you could support your mind and body with a supplement containing some adaptogenic herbs, which may enhance your own ability to sustain stress and fatigue. I can recommend Terranova, Vitamin B-Complex with vitamin C.
Boost your endorphins, EXERCISE!
Find a physical activity that motivates you getting out of the house, or that you enjoy even in your home. If you haven’t been exercising for some time, start very gently and build it up to what feels a pleasurable and satisfying level. You do not need to become a professional athlete unless this is in your plans, but push your limits safely if this feels good.
So, lone or group exercise can boost your “feel-good” neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Produced in the hypothalamus, endorphins can decrease stress by uplifting your moods and even relieving pain, because they act similarly to a class of drugs called opioids. So, wait no longer, find your motivation and get moving.
One thing, MEDITATE!
According to Buddhists, if you are stressed, you should meditate 20 minutes every day, but if you are very stressed, you should meditate for 1 hour every day.
Meditation may also help to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, enhancing memory, creativity and mental performance. These benefits may be a consequence of alpha brain waves production during meditation and changes within the amygdala region of the brain, which is responsible for processing emotions. One study conducted at the Massachusetts General Hospital demonstrated that 8 weeks of mediation may literally rebuild the brain grey matter.
You can practice it everywhere and at any time. I personally practise meditation most days: in the morning, if I have a busy and challenging day ahead, to tune me in; or at night, if I need the extra help to unwind and fall asleep.
Whenever you can, LAUGH!
When I was in a very dark place in life, laughter was completely unknown to me, I was moody and very sad, which I am sure exacerbated my already poor physical health condition. Now, I constantly laugh several times a day, every day and lucky enough without watching comedies, funny videos etc.
Different studies have proven that laughter can modulate physical and emotional wellbeing. Research done on volunteers, after having watched a comedy video, found out that their response to a stressor was much better compared to the volunteers in the other group, who watched a different kind of video. Other studies noticed that laughing may decrease the stress hormone cortisol.
On a much deeper level, we humans are energetic and vibrational beings, which means that positive, uplifting, nourishing, happy vibrations and energy may add life to our years and years to our lives.
So, hang around positive and respectfully funny people, go to comedies, watch videos of funny falls, children and animals, be happy.
SWITCH IT OFF!
You already know what I am referring to. Technology is fantastic, allowing us to constantly be in the loop with the latest news and trends, stay connected with our friends and family the other side of the world, watch movies on the go etc. Unfortunately, though, there are few catches with constantly using laptops and cell phones. For what concerns health problems hiding behind cell phone use, please read my article “are mobile phones radiofrequency safe?”
Different studies have also demonstrated that people that use the mobile phone the most are also more stressed. Other studies showed that couples engaging with work-related emails within the household are more likely to suffer from anxiety, family dissatisfaction and stress.
Our brains are constantly bombarded with information, and we need to learn how to give our brains a little rest. So, what you can do is this:
- Unsubscribe from junk emails and only keep those incoming emails that feed your brain with positive and uplifting messages;
- Keep your phone on an aeroplane mode when you walk, sleep, study, make love;
- When you are on a train, look outside and enjoy the view or read a book;
- If you are on the underground, look around you, engage with other people, look for soulmates and share a smile with them. So, switch it off at times!
7. Final words
Stress is impossible to avoid, so we have to learn to deal with it. Stress is never only in your head, as it disrupts our homeostatic balance and may cause health problems, especially if prolonged over time. Remember, you are always in control, so make the right choices, disengage emotionally, find time to relax, supplement if you must, join a dance class, allow yourself to say “no” or to laugh and be happy, meditate, spend time in nature and from time to time disconnect from technology.
Author: Cristiano Percoco, BSc (Hons) Nutritional Therapy
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