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Stress and anxiety - Blog

Stress and Anxiety

Stress. We’ve all heard about it and we’ve all experienced varying levels of stress – but just what is stress and what impact does it have on our body and mind?

 

The manner in which our body responds to stress is relatively rudimentary in that the body cannot determine between a physical threat or an emotional one or the degree of threat; our responses have not evolved over time either, though our sources of stress have.

 

There are 3 well defined physiological stages of stress:

 

1. Flight or Fight – our immediate response to stress. The body releases adrenaline, increases heart rate and breathing and diverts blood flow to our muscles so we can fight or run away

2. Resistance – our response to prolonged stress. Increased cortisol secretion increases blood pressure, converts protein into glucose for ready supply of energy. Continuation of this phase can result in chronic hypertension, diabetes and lead to the next stage of stress;

3. Exhaustion – ‘burn out’ or ‘adrenal fatigue’. Cells and organs can no longer function properly and can result in serious diseases.

 

Common signs of stress:

• Headaches, Forgetfulness, Difficulty concentrating, Inability to cope

• Irritability, Anxiety

• Insomnia, Fatigue

• Change in appetite, Digestive problems

• High blood pressure, Heart palpitations

• Increased & recurrent infections

• Increased use of drugs, alcohol, caffeine

 

Stress can have long term detrimental effects on our health too. Chronic stress in particular can be linked to many conditions including asthma, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, digestive ulcers pre-menstrual tension, menstrual irregularities, autoimmune conditions e.g. rheumatoid arthritis and depression and more.

What causes stress?

Everyone is exposed to some degree of stress in their lifetime. Interestingly it is not the actual stressor (stressful event or situation) that causes problems, but our reaction to the stressor – each person responds differently based on many varying factors. Some stress can even be considered useful this is termed Eustress and helps to motivate us and get us through a situation, hence the saying you need pressure to make diamonds.

 

Everyday things like physical exercise, exposure to chemicals (pollution, alcohol, caffeine, medications), busy work, family pressures, relationship challenges and poor nutrition can add to the burden on our body and mind. One or two of these challenges do not typically cause excessive stress, but if they start to pile up, then they can take a serious toll on your health.

 

There are certain stressful events that independent of other factors are known to cause significant impact to health. The Holmes-Rahe Life Stress Inventory lists the top 10 as:

1. Death of a spouse

2. Divorce

3. Marital separation from mate

4. Detention in jail or other institution

5. Death of a close family member

6. Major personal injury or illness

7. Marriage

8. Being fired from work

9. Marital reconciliation with mate

10. Retirement from work

The list covers 43 events, giving each one a score, based upon your total score researchers found a link to your likelihood of stress-induced health breakdown. No doubt more recent versions will also include global pandemics!

Tips for managing stress

Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to help ourselves manage the stress in our lives. Exercising regularly helps to decrease our stress hormones, promote feel good chemicals (endorphins), reduce fatigue, maintain healthy weight, improve general physical health thereby decreasing the overall risk of chronic disease, plus the potentail social benefits. Overall regular exercise may help to improve your future reactions to stressors (remember, it’s your reaction that is important!).

Just relax. This is possibly the worst advice to receive if you are under lots of stress, but it is important. Activities that help you to naturally relax include progressive relaxation, yoga for mind and body relaxation, meditation, massage, time in nature, time management, set priorities so you don’t feel pressured or rushed which includes not procrastinating – get the hard jobs done early while your energy levels are higher.

Quality sleep is essential too. This allows your body to recovers from the days activities, cements memory and learning from the day, many physiological process take place while we sleep. Lack of sleep leads to fatigue, poor concentration at work, irritability, weakened immunity and other negative health outcomes. Aim for 7-8 hours of undisturbed sleep. Read our blog ‘Recipe for a good nights’ sleep’ for more support here 

Good nutrition is important to have a strong resilient physical body. Do your best to cut down stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, sugar and refined carbohydrates, make sure you’re drinking enough water (2L +/- daily), eat more fruit and vegetables – they provide nutrients that help your body and nervous system to cope with stress.

 

There are also specific nutrients proven to combat stress; vitamin C supports the adrenal glands - your body loses vitamin C during high stress. B-group vitamins are very well known and sometimes referred to as ‘stress vitamins’, all B vitamins are helpful, especially vitamins B5 & B6. Zinc, magnesium and calcium are also important – magnesium in particular is great for helping the body and nerves to relax. L-theanine, is an amino acid found in the humble Camelia sensis or green tea you might have had with your breakfast. L-theanine is thought to be responsible for much of the relaxing properties of green tea, it has specifically been shown in studies to assist with reducing anxiety and stress.

 

There are many medicinal herbs that have relaxing properties, like chamomile and lavender for example. Some help to relax you into a good nights’ sleep like valerian and passionflower. Others like Kava are well studied and proven to help with stress and anxiety. Then there are a group of medicinal herbs called adaptogens – they help the body to increase its resistance to physical, environmental, emotional or biologic stressors and promote normal physiologic function. Ashwagandha (sometimes called Withania) is one of the best known adaptogenic herbs and is especially beneficial for people with chronic stress.

 

While we can’t control the world around us, and no doubt we will be faced with many significantly stressful events in our lifetime, we can control our response to stressors. Take care of your health – exercise regularly, eat well, include stress management practices, add specific vitamins, nutrients and medicinal herbs and ensure you have an emotional support structure, be it family, friends or a counsellor. There is always help available, so make sure you reach out if you feel that your stress or anxiety levels are becoming unmanageable.