Stress is a very normal response of the body to any situation or event that we perceive as threatening to our health and wellbeing. We have all had that experience when a friend or family member thinks they are the best practical joker and scares you out of your body. After the initial fright, have you ever taken note of how your body feels and what is happening?
The body in its innate wisdom decides to prepare itself to either fight the attacker (ie. punch the lights out of the practical joker 🙄), run away terrified faster than the 'Flash ⚡️' or freeze on the spot ❄️, hoping that whatever scared you will get bored and lose interest - hence the term fight, flight or freeze response. Inside the body, blood vessels are constricting - shunting blood to your extremities, glycogen and adipose reserves (stored sugar and fat ie. energy in the body) are released into the bloodstream making their potential energy available for the muscles to use. Your heart rate and breathing begin to quicken, increasing blood pressure and the amount of oxygen available to aid in the utilisation of the energy now freely floating around in the blood.
The 'Good' about stress:
Now before we continue, it is important to note that not all stress is harmful to you. We need a certain amount of stress in our daily lives to maintain a healthy body and mind. For example, have you ever wondered why it is recommended to do strength or resistance training to improve bone health?
Remember the saying, "if you don't use it, you lose it.". Well, it is true for the body as well. If calcium is not needed in the bones due to constant stress being exerted, the body absorbs less or relocates it to where it is needed. To help you understand this point better, let us look at some basic anatomy. The skeleton provides our framework to which skeletal muscles, tendons and ligaments attach, holding the bones together as well as providing movement. The tendons at the end of the muscles are attached to the bone. When the muscle contracts, like lifting a weight, this contraction creates a pulling force on the bone. This force is applied to the bone creating 'stress'. This stress, in turn, stimulates the body to store more calcium in the bone and strengthen it to accommodate the increased stress applied to it.
The same notion is true for the mind. If we were to sit each day with minimal stimulation, eventually neurological disorders will develop such as dementia. The reason behind this is again the body's innate programming to take from what is not being used. In this example,
our brain is no longer requiring the same amount of resources to produce neurons and maintain the same level of mental faculties that we are accustomed to. This is why we constantly seek out hobbies, such as reading in order to stimulate and engage our mind.
So in short - a certain amount of stress boosts body and mind to an optimal level. However, too much stress has the opposite effect.
The 'Bad' about stress:
As mentioned, the rush of adrenaline and cortisol in your body causes an influx of glucose and fatty acids into the bloodstream. The surge of glucose into the bloodstream stimulates the pancreas to release insulin. The insulin functions in pulling the glucose from your bloodstream and into your muscles and liver for storage as glycogen. Over time the high levels of insulin within the body may result in Diabetes Mellitus Type 2 or Insulin-resistant Diabetes.
The constant high levels of fatty acids in your bloodstream cause hyperlipidemia. Over time, the levels of fatty acids in the bloodstream may result in coronary heart disease. This adds to an increased risk of a heart attack.
Not only is the release of glucose and fat reserves associated with high levels of stress but stress can also create an imbalance of the hormones in the body. Due to the increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol, other hormones may be affected. For example, the increase in stress hormones may down-regulate thyroid hormones, such as T3 and T4. This is due to the inhibition of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) during stress through the action of glucocorticoids on the central nervous system (CNS).
What can we do?
On the one hand, stress can be beneficial to the body and on the other hand, stress can cause potential illness or exacerbate existing conditions. In order for us to balance stress effectively, we need to appropriately manage our levels of stress.
Some strategies for coping with your stress levels are:
Taking care of your health:
The need for a healthy diet and balanced nutrition is a key component in managing stress levels. An increase in dietary fruit and vegetables has shown to have a positive effect on mood, optimism and aid in combating against depression. Ensure that you include five to eight servings of fruits and vegetables to your diet each day for optimal results, as well as healthy whole-grains such as brown rice, millet, and quinoa.
Regular daily exercise:
Exercise can be a potent natural anti-depressant. A meta-analysis and systematic review of the literature on exercise and depression found that exercise was effective in reducing the symptoms of depression when compared with usual care among depressed adults. Exercise does not mean you need to run for six hours or lift weights until your limbs fall off. Rather just 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily is enough such as walking - whatever is going to make you feel good.
Meditation has long been promoted as an effectual way of coping with stress but is this true - yes! A study was done measuring the effects of meditation on stress levels of caregivers over an eight week period. The study found that meditating as little as 12 minutes a day reported a beneficial improvement to mental and psychological well-being.
Sleep is an important function of our mind and body. Sufficient sleep can boost immunity as well as reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The optimal amount of sleep is around seven hours per night.
Stress is an everyday part of life but it does not have to become your life. Take time out in your daily life to reduce your stress. If you still battle with your stress levels talk to family, friends and even your health professional for advice on coping and dealing with stress.
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