Stress is a term often used in conjunction with or instead of anxiety or vice versa. It is generally seen as a state of psychological tension produced by certain perceived physiological and/or psychological pressures or forces acting on a person within a certain environment or situation. We go through periods of time in our lives when the demands are greater and the stress load is heavier. Regardless of the reasons whether it is through illness, relationship difficulties, work struggles, caring for an aging parent etc. There can be a physical impact. We may turn to food for comfort, or we may not nourish ourselves adequately. During times of stress there are actual physiological changes that happen in our bodies, one of which is weight gain. It may not happen overnight, but if we do not pay attention to our body’s needs, over time we may notice we are putting on the pounds.
Stages of the stress process
The first stage of stress is said to occur when an individual perceives that they are not capable of carrying out a particular task. Faced with a particular situation, game or task that may have being set by the individual, family, friends, work colleges, bosses etc.
The individual will make a quick cognitive evaluation of what is required, comparing this with what they think are their own abilities, skill level or experience. The demands of the situation/task are then perceived as threatening or not depending on whether an imbalance between task and capabilities is detected.
Problems occur because the individual’s subjective perceptions of the situational demands and their own capabilities are used to evaluate the situation, not the objective or actual demands and capabilities. Each individual will perceive these demands differently and will therefore respond and perform differently.
Causes of stress
Within life there are said to be three basic categories of stressors. They are Environmental, Occupational, and Life events.
Examples of these stressors are: Frustration, Conflict, Personal, Physiological, Audience, Peer Pressure, Self-Image, Time Restraints, Excessive Expectations, Win at all cost attitude, Rewards/Incentives/Prizes
Responding to stress
Having perceived an imbalance between the demands of the task and an individual’s own capabilities the response can be either psychological or physiological. The response will vary according to the degree of the perceived treat. Anger, apathy (lack of interest) and anxiety are the most common psychological responses to stress. When faced with an immediately threatening situation the body reacts in the short term by increasing psychological arousal.
How stress becomes physical
If you were being chased by a predator, your adrenal glands initiate the “fight or flight” response, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the body. These hormones provide extra physical energy and strength from stored carbohydrates and fats. The body’s natural course of evolution has maintained this original fight-or-flight stress response. But whether we are being physically threatened or not, with any increased stress our body looks to its stored fuel, and then replenishes it when used. Also, with increased levels of cortisol, our body also does not respond as well to leptin, the hormone that makes us feel full, so we eat more. Modern-day stress may be more psychological than physiological, but it is also more constant. Many of us face chronic stress as a way of life, which means we have consistently elevated levels of cortisol. Now the body thinks it continually needs extra fuel, and typically stores that as fat around the abdomen.
Belly fat: a common sign of adrenal fatigue
Adrenal imbalance causes a number of issues, including an expanded waistline. When we begin to feel hungry, our blood sugar drops and the brain sends a message to the adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol activates glucose, fats, and amino acids to keep our body fueled with energy until we eat. Cortisol maintains blood sugar levels, and insulin helps our cells absorb glucose. When we have long term stress, both insulin and cortisol remain elevated in the blood, and the extra glucose is stored as fat–mostly in the abdomen. Here’s where it gets interesting. Scientists have discovered that fat cells actually have special receptors for the stress hormone cortisol, and there are more of these receptors in our abdominal fat cells than anywhere else in our bodies! In addition, scientists have shown that belly fat is actually an active tissue, acting as an endocrine organ that responds to the stress response by actually welcoming more fat to be deposited! This is an ongoing cycle until we take steps to correct this adrenal imbalance. So you ask the question… How do we do that?
By managing & reducing stress in your life
A simplistic way of viewing the management of stress is to REDUCE THE PROBLEM & REDUCE THE STRESS
Our adrenal glands oversee our stress response. They actually help control many hormonal cycles and functions in our body. When the adrenal glands are overworked, the body prepares for disaster, by storing fat and calories. We crave foods, we lose precious energy, and we gain weight. So you ask the question. How can we keep the stress load from affecting our bodies? How can I reduce my stress levels? There are a number of things you can do to reduce your stress levels.
Improve your sleeping pattern. Many of us complain of being tired all day then having trouble sleeping at night. This is because you are in an upside down circadian rhythm, which affects cortisol levels, causing irregular sleep patterns. This can be corrected by eating less food late in the day, turning off all technology including television, phones, laptops etc. by 8 p.m., and by trying to be in bed and asleep by 10 p.m. The goal is to have at least eight hours of sleep, so our bodies can rest and regulate our hormonal cycles.
Get your body moving each day and exercise for 30-60 minutes. Our adrenals respond to stress, even if we think it is positive. Exercise is positive, and can help us reduce stress, but only if it does not make us feel tired. When we are exhausted, our adrenals are already working hard, and exercise can put added strain on them. The goal is to keep your heart rate under 90 beats per minute when working out. If you don’t regularly exercise, walking 15-20 minutes once or twice a day after meals, outside in fresh air, makes our adrenal glands, and our mind and body, very happy.
Forget all the negative things in your life and have some fun. At the end of the day that’s why we are on this planet. To enjoy ourselves and have FUN! Don’t forget that having fun, laughing, and enjoying your time is a very important way to relax! We all need to make having fun a priority, the benefits are amazing!
Eating at the right time does matters. Although it sounds ironic, if you want your body to believe that it is not in danger of starving to death, you need to eat healthy food at regular intervals. Since cortisol helps regulate blood sugar, keeping glucose levels balanced will take some of the stress off the adrenal glands. Three nutritious meals and two healthy snacks spread out across the day will keep our adrenal glands steady. When we eat we elevate our cortisol, so it’s ideal to consume larger meals earlier in the day, which also helps our body prepare itself for restful sleep at night.
Very often when an individual is stressed the quickest way to reduce the levels of stress is to walk away from the activity/situation/task that is causing the stress and seek solitude in quiet rooms/places. Therefore, allowing the individual to re-focus the mind and give the mind improved focus. Breaking down the task into smaller pieces here works also.
Applying breathing techniques to control breathing when under stress has been shown to reduce muscle tension. This is achieved by increasing the amount of oxygenated blood cells flowing around the body while taking the focus away from the stressful situation. Conscientiously controlling the depth and rate of breathing as stress is felt will help maintain the individual’s level of control and composure thus reducing the effects of both the somatic and cognitive anxiety. Try inhale through your stomach for four seconds, your chest for another four seconds, hold the air in for another four seconds and exhale for four seconds.
Positive self-talk –This is used to maintain concentration levels and focus positively on the task. Remaining optimistic and believing that you are going to achieve your successful outcome helps increase motivation levels and self-esteem. Health benefits that positive thinking may provide include:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
Imagery is a basic cognitive function and is associated with long term reductions in stress levels. By recalling appropriate stored information from the memory individuals can generate images of movement experiences (e.g. visualising how something should look when it is assembled). Create a mental picture of new experiences in the mind, or recreate a mental picture of a previous experience. It can be: Visual (e.g. picture the completed project) Auditory (e.g. hear the sound of the fixed car engine) or Emotional (imagine the feeling of success when the task is complete)
The Effects of Stress on the Body
If you’re alive, you’ve got stress. Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to both good and bad experiences that can be beneficial to your health and safety. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones and increasing your heart and breathing rates. Your brain gets more oxygen, giving you an edge in responding to a problem. In the short term, stress helps you cope with tough situations.
Stress can be triggered by the pressures of everyday responsibilities at work and at home. As you might expect, negative life events like divorce or the death of a loved one cause stress. So can physical illness. Traumatic stress, brought on by war, disaster, or a violent attack, can keep your body’s stress levels elevated far longer than is necessary for survival.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and can affect your overall health and well-being.
Central Nervous and Endocrine Systems
Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. The CNS instantly tells the rest of your body what to do, marshalling all resources to the cause. In the brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol.
When the perceived fear is gone, the CNS should tell all systems to go back to normal. It has done its job. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesn’t go away, it takes a toll on your body.
Symptoms of chronic stress include irritability, anxiety, and depression. You may suffer from headaches or insomnia. Chronic stress is a factor in some behaviours like overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, or social withdrawal.
Respiratory and Cardiovascular Systems
Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an effort to distribute oxygen and blood quickly to your body core. If you have pre-existing respiratory problems like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it harder to breathe. Your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and raise your blood pressure. All that helps get oxygen to your brain and heart so you’ll have more strength and energy to take action.
Frequent or chronic stress makes your heart work too hard for too long, raising your risk of hypertension and problems with your blood vessels and heart. You’re at higher risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
The female hormone oestrogen offers pre-menopausal women some protection from stress-related heart disease.
Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you a boost of energy. Unused blood sugar is reabsorbed by the body. If you’re under chronic stress, your body may not be able to keep up with this extra glucose surge, and you may be at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
The rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can upset your digestive system. You’re more likely to have heartburn or acid reflux. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers — a bacterium called H. pylori does — but stress may cause existing ulcers to act up.
You might also experience nausea, vomiting, or a stomach-ache. Stress can affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhoea or constipation.
Under stress, your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury. You’ve probably felt your muscles tighten up and release again once you relax. If you’re constantly under stress, your muscles don’t get the chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, you may stop exercising and turn to pain medication, setting off an unhealthy cycle.
Sexuality and Reproductive System
Stress is exhausting for the body and for the mind. It’s not unusual to lose your desire for sex when you’re under chronic stress. However, men may produce more of the male hormone testosterone during stress, which may increase sexual arousal in the short term.
For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. You might have irregular or no menstruation, or heavier and more painful periods. The physical symptoms of menopause may be magnified under chronic stress.
If stress continues for a long time, a man’s testosterone levels begin to drop. That can interfere with sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress may make the urethra, prostate, and testes more prone to infection.
Stress stimulates the immune system. In the short term, that’s a bonus. It helps you stave off infection and heal wounds. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like influenza and the common cold. It increases risk of other opportunistic diseases and infections. It can also increase the time it takes to recover from illness or injury.