The “S” word. Stress is something we often don’t want to talk about. Maybe you think you don’t have stress or don’t have as much as other people. But as it turns out, we all go through periods of stress and manage it in our own way. There’s no use in ignoring it, especially because stress has a huge impact on our health. In our latest free webinar, Functional Medicine Practitioner Fera Butts explains the effects of stress on the entire body and how to overcome them with various methods of stress reduction.
What is stress? Well, when used in physics, the word stress refers to the interaction between a force and the resistance to counter that force. But we usually identify stress as the feeling of being overwhelmed or unable to cope with some sort of internal or external pressure. And a lot of the time, the body tells us we’re experiencing stress before the mind does. Hans Selye was the first scientist to identify stress as underpinning the nonspecific signs and symptoms of illness. After studying how the human body reacted to physical stressors, Selye developed the general adaptation syndrome (GAS).
The stages of general adaptation syndrome
GAS describes the physiological changes the body automatically goes through when it responds to stress. There are three stages: the alarm reaction stage, resistance stage and exhaustion stage:
- Alarm reaction stage: During this stage, the body experiences the initial symptoms of stress, and the “fight-or-flight” response is triggered. Fight-or-flight is a natural reaction which prepares you to either flee or protect yourself in dangerous situations. During such a reaction, your heart rate increases, your adrenal gland releases cortisol (a stress hormone) and you receive a boost of adrenaline, which increases energy. Unfortunately, in the world today, we are constantly operating in this state.
- Resistance stage: After the initial shock of a stressful event, the body begins to repair itself by releasing a lower amount of cortisol and normalizing your heart rate and blood pressure. Even in this recovery phase, your body remains on high alert for a while. If you overcome your stress, your body continues to repair itself until your hormone levels, heart rate and blood pressure reach a pre-stress state. But if you don’t resolve it, your body eventually adapts to a higher stress level. During this stage, you may experience irritability, frustration and poor concentration. If it continues for too long without pause, you may be led into the exhaustion stage.
- Exhaustion stage: This stage is the result of prolonged or chronic stress, both of which can drain your physical, emotional and mental resources to the point where your body doesn’t have the strength to fight stress. You may feel your situation is hopeless and experience signs of fatigue, burnout, depression, anxiety and decreased stress tolerance. The physical effects of this stage can weaken your immune system and even put you at risk for stress-related illnesses.
When we’re in the stressed, sympathetic, fight-or-flight state, we have increased alertness, dilated pupils, increased breathing, accelerated heart rate, inhibited digestion and increased muscle tone. What we want is to get out of that state and into the relaxed, parasympathetic, “rest and digest” state. In this state, we experience decreased alertness, constricted pupils, slow and deep breathing, decreased heart rate, stimulated digestion and decreased muscle tone. It’s important for your health to stay in a state of rest and digest as much as possible. People who have a lot of digestive issues, for example, are often in a state of fight-or-flight, where the body cannot relax, triggering inhibited digestion.
How stress affects the body
When your body is in a prolonged state of stress, it experiences what we call “the cortisol steal.” As your body perceives stress, your adrenal glands make and release the hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. So, during the cortisol steal, the body is not releasing as much of other hormones, like progesterone, estrogen and testosterone, and instead is increasing its production of adrenaline and cortisol. These states of prolonged and chronic stress impact every area of the body. For example, in the brain, you may have difficulty concentrating, anxiety, depression, irritability or mind fog. Even skin can be impacted by high levels of stress, resulting in hair loss, dull/brittle hair, brittle nails, dry skin, acne or delayed tissue repair. Stress can also affect the gut, reproductive system, cardiovascular health, joints and muscles and the immune system. Stress is that heavily connected to our bodies. And while everyone’s journey is their own when it comes to stress, no matter what you’re going through, the body will tell you.
How to reduce stress in everyday life
The right approach will be unique to you. First, ask yourself this question: What brings me joy? It may be going for a walk, reading, traveling or being with family. Whatever it may be, incorporating it into your day may help alleviate some of your stress. We also like to reference the five-point restorative approach, which is the belief that the body can heal itself when the function of your body, hormones, nutrition, mind and toxins are all optimized. Keeping these five areas in sync will help alleviate your stress-associated symptoms or conditions. Another way to manage stress is to activate your body’s relaxation response by practicing these methods:
- Breathe consciously. One breathing exercise that is simple and helps induce the relaxation response is 4-7-8 breathing by Dr. Andrew Weil. You inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and slowly exhale through your mouth for a count of eight seconds. Try to perform this exercise for four cycles, one to two times a day.
- Meditate. Studies show that meditation activates the left prefrontal cortex, your happiness center in the brain. It also deactivates the right prefrontal cortex and amygdala, your emotional and fear centers in the brain. Studies also show that there are less inflammatory markers in the blood of those who meditate. There are many different ways to meditate — with a group, individually or even with a mobile app. You can pick a method that feels right for you.
- Exercise. Start light by walking a few minutes a day and gradually working your way up. This is usually helpful for those who don’t typically exercise or those who have difficulty working out due to chronic stress and fatigue. Exercise shouldn’t be exhaustive to the point where you can’t function afterward. Yoga is wonderful for both the mind and body because of the connectivity with your breath and the various body poses that you perform.
- Practice self-care. Rearrange your schedule to include 30-60 minutes of protected time for you daily. Put it in your calendar. During this time, take a break from any electronics and do what makes you feel happy and relaxed. Make yourself the center of your own universe. In other words, take care of yourself first before anyone or anything else. This is sometimes difficult to do, especially if you have kids or are taking care of your elderly parents, but it’s the most important thing you can do for your health and wellbeing.
Other proven methods of stress reduction
If you’re looking for an alternative medicine approach, Reiki is an ideal option for stress relaxation, meditation and healing. Originating in Japan, Reiki is an energy healing technique that involves a Reiki master using gentle hand movements to guide the flow of healthy energy through the body to reduce stress and promote healing. The Reiki master works to align the chakras, focusing on the mind, body and spirit connection. Another approach is BrainTap, a headset which uses proprietary neuro-algorithms to help you relax, reboot and revitalize by optimizing your brain’s peak potential. While wearing the headset, you’ll experience binaural beats, guided visualization, 10-cycle holographic music, isochronic tones and gentle light pulses during a 20- to 30-minute meditation session.
We’ve just thrown a lot of information at you about stress management, but one thing we hope you remember is that with stress, it’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way that you carry it. We all go through stress; the key is to find ways to overcome it that work best for you. So, pay attention to your body — if you’re stressed, it’ll let you know. And when you do discover how your body reacts to stress, take action. Try out any of the methods we described above or discover your own way of reducing stress. And if you need some extra help, we are more than happy to see you for a consultation!