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What Is Stress?

When you get a chance to stop and really look at the effects of stress, you start to notice how it impacts more than just your body – it can alter your mind, emotions, and behaviour. The better we can understand stress and how it affects us, the easier we can put in positive steps to handle it. The following article will guide you through what stress is and how it affects the body, but most importantly, what you can do to manage it.

We’ve all been there before. Whether it’s taking an exam, moving house, or even running to catch the last train, everyone has encountered some form of stress in their life. It could be day-to-day stress like being stuck in traffic, or longer-term stress like dealing with a chronic illness or injury. Whichever it may be, stress always seems to present itself in that oh-so-familiar feeling we experience both physically and emotionally.

We talk about stress a lot, but can we define what it is?

Stress is essentially the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. These pressures can derive from our surroundings, our personal lives, our professional lives or even the roles we play in society, for example being a good parent, carer, or spouse.

Stress Through the Ages

The reason we experience stress makes a lot of sense when we look back into our ancestry. For our descendants, stress was essential for survival when it came to noticing predators and running away from threats. It would not be possible to avoid danger without our bodies amping up our adrenaline, making us hyper-alert to attackers.

A common phrase associated with stress is the term ‘fight or flight’ – an instinctual, physiological reaction our body has when it comes face to face with a threat. Most of us today still have this hard-wired fight-or-flight reaction to danger; however, this response is out of proportion with the everyday stressors we experience now. For example, running for the train is not the same as running away from a sabre-toothed tiger! Consequently, stress nowadays manifests itself in a subtler but much more constant way. This can therefore make stress harder to detect.

How Stress Affects the Body

Although stress might be harder to detect now compared to the Stone Age, the body’s biological response to stress has always remained the same. It can be explained using two hormones: cortisol and adrenaline.

Acute Stress

Adrenaline is a hormone produced in response to sudden stress on the body. When coming face to face with high intensity stress, a part of the brain called the amygdala perceives this danger and sends a distress signal to another part of the brain called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then communicates to the rest of the body that danger is present. This activates the fight-or-flight response and all the physical bodily changes experienced with acute stress including faster breathing, increased blood pressure, racing heartbeat and dilation/constriction of key blood vessels. All these steps happen so quickly that the individual is not even aware of the efficiency of these internal processes.

Cortisol contributes to supplying muscles with an immediate energy resource by releasing glucose. Cortisol also inhibits insulin production so that this released glucose can be used by the body immediately, preventing it from being stored.

Chronic Stress

Cortisol also plays its part in the fight-or-flight response; however, it is more commonly associated with stress not required for immediate survival.

This is often called chronic stress. Every time an individual experiences stress, regulation of cortisol within the body is impacted. Cortisol’s physical effects on the body continue for much longer than adrenaline.

The Good News…

Stress can be very beneficial in certain circumstances. For example, studies show that a manageable amount of stress can positively impact motivation and productivity. However, manageable amounts of stress can seem fine in the moment, but if you keep getting short work deadlines week on week, that stress can build up over months or even years. It’s this cumulative stress that can take its toll on your health. For example, having a constant high blood pressure can lead to increased risk of heart disease.

The Not-So-Good News…

Despite stress being associated positively with motivation, unfortunately there are many unintended, negative consequences of stress in the present day. If we take ourselves back to earlier in the article, we discussed how cortisol regulation is impaired during stress. On a chronic basis, the long-term overexposure to cortisol can impact many areas of the body. This puts you at a higher risk of many health conditions including irregular sleeping, heart disease, digestive problems, weight gain, memory impairment and many other chronic diseases.

How Stress Can Affect Your Eating Habits and Why

The effect of stress hormones can alter eating habits or leave you with no structure at all. Stress is linked to a loss of appetite in some or a rapid increase in appetite for others. Not only can stress correlate with the amount of food eaten, but it also impacts eating patterns.

Tip 1 – Remove Stress Where Possible

As mentioned before, stress is sometimes unavoidable. However, there is an element of ‘self-help’ when it comes to stress as some stressors are unnecessary and can be avoided to make your life easier. If you find the thought of being late to work stressful, wake up a little earlier to give yourself time in the mornings and save yourself from rushing around. A bit of discipline in your own personal routine can hugely reduce stress levels. If you change your environment, you may find it’s easier to deal with the unavoidable stress in other areas of your life.

Tip 2 – Exercise at Least Once a Day

Never underestimate the power of exercise! Whether it’s a full-on HIIT workout, or just a gentle walk around the block, getting moving is so important to relieving stress. During exercise, the body naturally releases endorphins, which are chemicals created by the nervous system. These naturally produced chemicals are often referred to as ‘happy chemicals’. They are naturally occurring and FREE – so why not use them!

Tip 3 – Expose Yourself to Nature

You may be surprised by this fourth tip, but it has been proven that spending time outside can improve your mental wellbeing. If you find yourself feeling a bit stressed, perhaps take some time out of your day to walk somewhere scenic where you can appreciate calming views or peaceful woodland. You could also try taking up an outside hobby such as gardening or birdwatching.

Tip 4 – Adopt Healthy Eating Habits

With a specific stressor at the forefront of your mind, it’s easy to toss aside routine behaviour such as eating schedules when it feels like your brain can only focus on that one stressful thing. Although it’s easy to think something as simple as scheduled eating isn’t important, stress will be so much easier to combat if you eat well.


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