Although these events are really just everyday realities, our bodies do not understand this. If we let this run unchecked, soon the constant and accumulating stress becomes chronic and this then can ravage the health of our minds and bodies.
WHAT IS STRESS?
The amygdala—an almond-shaped cluster of densely packed brain cells, found on both sides of the brain deep inside the temporal area—fires off a fear signal once we perceive stress, such as hearing a loud firing noise late at night in our quiet neigbourhood. This signal then travels to our hypothalamus, a small region at the base of our brain that acts as a link of the nervous system to the endocrine system via the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus gives the alarm, and, through a blend of nerve and hormone systems, signals the adrenal glands. These glands are located on top of both of our kidneys, and, upon receiving the signal from the hypothalamus, spew out stress hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline is a fast-acting hormone that increases our heart rates as well as our blood pressure and optimizes the body for the best burning of fast energy supplies.
Cortisol, although it does act acutely, is the more chronic stress hormone that prepares the body for a longer haul of facing the stress, by increasing the sugar concentration in the bloodstream, and improving our brain’s usage of glucose. It also speeds up the breakdown of protein into its building blocks—amino acids—which enters the bloodstream and the liver to be changed into yet more glucose. In addition, it also suppresses the digestive, reproductive and growth systems.
Finally, this complex alarm system also communicates with our brains itself, creating changes in mood, anxiety and will power.
WHY IS STRESS DANGEROUS?
Usually, our brain and body will soon settle soon down after it becomes alarmed. We hear the sudden loud noise, experience the stress response described above, but then realize that it was only the backfiring of the old car of the next door neighbour’s teenage kid.
The stress response dies down quickly, and our hormone levels return to their normal baseline levels. The rest of the body settles down as well; the heart rate slows, the blood pressure drops and the digestive and reproductive systems go back to their individual business.
But sometimes, our minds and bodies will feel as if they are constantly under attack and our stress-response system stays on. Cortisol becomes constantly elevated. This causes a lot of problems.
The prolonged cortisol release results in a net loss of tissue proteins and higher levels of blood sugar—really not good news in the long run. Also, as it is a naturally-acting anti-inflammatory agent, over time, it suppresses the formation of white blood cells and antibodies, leading to a decrease in immunity. Fat gets redistributed mainly into the dangerous intra-abdominal fat area and our weight goes up. Insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes become more likely to occur. Digestive problems, such as peptic ulcers, happen more frequently. Heart disease and hypertension pop up. Sleeplessness becomes common and this in turn leads to more stress. Anxiety and depression start stealing the quality of our lives. Our attention and concentration go out the door. We start losing our keys and our wallets on a regular basis. Increasingly as all of these things spin out of control, we lose control.
HOW TO DEAL WITH STRESS:
Nobody can completely avoid stress. It may not be possible to change our work demands or that of our family’s.
Nevertheless, we can do the following to prevent the stress from overwhelming our health:
- Identify which things, events or people stress you; and learn to change how you think and respond to these
- Eat healthy meals frequently, preferably three regular meals, starting with breakfast as soon as we get up, and also have three small snack meals in between
- Sleep regularly, sleep enough (between 6-9 hours a night) and wake up the same time every day of the week
- Get regular exercise at least three times a week, and make sure that you include carbohydrates and protein after exercise sessions
- Work on achieving mindfulness (see also my feature on mindfulness in this newsletter )
- Spend time with friends and family, and isolate only and briefly when we need replenishment by ourselves
- See life through humour-filled and grateful glasses
- Try natural remedies, such as chamomile tea, green tea, valerian, lemon balm or hops extract
If any or all of these recommendations do not help, you may need to seek out the support and guidance of a mental health professional. They will help with counselling tools, and if necessary, with the correct medication.