In the symphony of life, we often find ourselves navigating through a cacophony of stressors. Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the demands of our modern world, struggling to find those moments of clarity and confidence amidst the chaos? It’s as if our inner harmony is disrupted, leaving us feeling out of tune with our true selves. In this article, we explore the intricacies of stress, its effects on our health, and the biological basis for its impact on our bodies and minds.
First, let us acknowledge that stress can serve an essential purpose. In small, manageable doses, stress can motivate us to achieve our goals, sharpen our focus, and heighten our efficiency. However, when stress becomes a relentless force, it can have significant consequences on our mental and physical well-being, disrupting our emotional balance, relationships, and daily habits.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, stress is “our body’s response to a real or perceived threat.” It is not the situation itself but rather our reaction to the demands placed upon us. Just as each individual has their unique melody, our responses to stressors can differ significantly.
Stress Is a Response To a Stressor
Stressors come in various forms, from significant life events such as changing jobs, divorce, or the loss of a loved one, to the everyday challenges of parenting, chronic illness, or caregiving. It’s important to remember that stress is a natural response designed to protect us. However, it is crucial to develop strategies to manage and mitigate its impact on our lives.
DISCLAIMER: If you are dealing with trauma or a serious mental health issue, please see a medical or mental health professional.
The Natural Stress Response
When facing a stressor, our bodies instinctively prioritise survival, activating the fight, flight or freeze responses:
- Fight – Stress heightens our awareness, making us feel frustrated or angry, quickening our heart rate and breathing, and tensing our muscles.
- Flight – Stress encourages us to avoid or procrastinate addressing the problem.
- Freeze – Stress can overwhelm us, leaving us unable to concentrate or focus on finding a solution.
Yet, many situations that trigger these survival mechanisms do not pose a genuine threat to our existence. Our natural reactions often do not distinguish between life-threatening events and less severe stressors, such as job changes, tight deadlines, or traffic jams.
There Are Two Types of Stress: Acute And Chronic
There are two types of stress: acute and chronic. Acute stress is intense but short-lived, like swerving to avoid a collision. In contrast, chronic stress is long-term, such as dealing with a persistent legal issue or illness. This ongoing stress keeps our bodies in a constant state of high alert, preventing us from relaxing and returning to our natural rhythms.
The Impact Of Stress On Both Mental And Physical Health
Stress can have a profound effect on our mental health, influencing our mood and attention and leading to feelings of irritability, worry, sadness, or anger. In some cases, stress can even contribute to more severe mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. Physically, stress can impact our digestion, immune, cardiovascular, and reproductive systems, leading to a range of symptoms, including digestive distress, headaches, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, and weight fluctuations. Prolonged stress can also increase our risk for conditions such as asthma, obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
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Unravelling the Biology of Stress
When confronted with stress, our brain’s hypothalamus sets off a cascade of reactions through two interconnected systems: the nervous system and the hormonal system. These mechanisms shape our body’s response to stress, producing a multitude of symptoms and affecting our overall well-being.
Our nervous system becomes more alert and prepared to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of stress. It redistributes our body’s resources away from non-essential functions, increasing our attention, heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and muscle tension, while simultaneously downregulating our digestion, immune response, and reproductive functions.
The hormonal response to stress occurs through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis). The hypothalamus sends signals to the adrenal glands, which then produce the potent stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones direct our bodies to prioritize survival over resting, digesting, immunity, or reproduction.
When stressed, our bodies prepare for action, increasing heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and blood sugar levels to fuel our muscles and brain. It’s important to recognise that these stress reactions are biologically the same, regardless of whether the stressor poses a genuine threat to our survival or is simply a challenging situation.
Stress can also influence our food cravings and eating habits. The hunger hormone ghrelin is released in response to stress, promoting food-seeking behaviour and meal initiation. This may explain the connection between stress and weight gain, as well as the difficulty in losing weight when under chronic stress.
As the stressful situation subsides, our stress hormones return to normal levels, allowing our bodies to resume their natural balance. However, with chronic stress, our bodies remain in a heightened state of alertness, leading to long-term consequences such as anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension, heart disease risk, sleep problems, and weight issues.
In essence, stress is a natural response to the demands of life, serving to protect and motivate us. However, chronic stress disrupts our inner harmony, resulting in a myriad of physical and mental health issues. Developing strategies to manage and mitigate the impact of stress on our well-being is essential as we navigate through life.
Embracing Stress-Management Strategies
Who doesn’t desire more joy and less stress? By nurturing yourself and addressing your response to stress, you can embrace the most amazing version of yourself. As a holistic wellness coach, I understand the importance of managing stress in a healthy way, which can enhance sleep, reduce the frequency of illness, improve moods, and strengthen relationships with others. If stress influences your weight, managing it can help you better manage your weight as well.
It is essential to remember that the ultimate goal is not to eliminate stress entirely but rather to provide you with tools to reduce its impact on your mental and physical health. With this in mind, let us explore seven strategies for managing stress and cultivating a happier, healthier existence.
1. Be mindful of your stress and return to the present moment
First and foremost, it is vital to recognise when you are experiencing stress and to bring your awareness back to the present moment – what can you see, feel, smell, hear, or taste right now?
By acknowledging your stress and observing how it manifests in your body and mind, you are taking the first step in moving through it. Practice being present with your senses, and remind yourself that your reactions are natural and normal, without judgment.
- Recognise and acknowledge your personal way of experiencing stress
- Come back to the present moment
- Remind yourself that your reaction is natural and normal
- Validate, don’t judge, how you are feeling mentally and physically
- Be kind to yourself
2. Nurture your mental health
When stress threatens to overtake your sense of well-being, consider engaging in activities that bring you relaxation and calm. Whether it is meditation, yoga, a hobby or connecting with loved ones, find what brings you peace and make time for it regularly.
- Take time to relax and calm your mind in a healthy way
- Invest at least a few minutes to do this regularly
- Consider activities that help you relax, such as taking a bath, watching a funny video, playing with a pet, chatting with friends/family, meditating, taking a nap, doing breathing exercises, picking up a hobby/puzzle/game/craft, writing in your gratitude journal, listening to guided imagery
- Consider taking a “mental health day”
3. Care for your physical health
In times of stress, it is important to prioritise the health of your body through proper nutrition and regular exercise. Remember that you are worth the effort, and make small, manageable changes to your lifestyle to promote a sense of balance and vitality.
- Maintain physical health in a kind and balanced way to reduce stress
- Stress can lead to emotional eating and unhealthy food choices
- Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity each day, but even a bit of activity is better than none
- Nourish your body with nutritious, wholesome foods
- Eat and drink at a slower, more mindful pace to enjoy every bite/sip
- Be careful not to overdo it with physical activity so it doesn’t become another source of stress
4. Connect with others
Reaching out and connecting with others can be a powerful antidote to stress. Building relationships and sharing your feelings with someone you trust can provide a sense of support and help you navigate challenging situations.
- Stress can make you feel lonely and isolated, so reaching out to someone and building a stronger relationship can be important
- Recruit support from someone you trust who will listen to your concerns and give you space to decompress
- Invite them to a phone/video call, coffee date, dinner, or other activity together
- Take care of your mental health by chatting while doing a hobby or creative activity together
- Book a healthy restaurant meal/takeout or invite them over for a nutritious potluck
- Turn it into a fitness opportunity by going for a walk or hike together
- Connecting with someone you care about and who cares about you is a good action towards reducing stress
5. Reflect on your response to stress
Take a moment to examine your reactions to stress without judgment, and consider whether there might be a different perspective from which to view the situation. Empower yourself to adjust your response and lessen the impact of stress on your life.
- Address your reaction to the stressor without judgement
- Remind yourself that stress is a reaction to a stressor
- Consider if your reaction is bigger than the threat
- Recognise how natural and normal your reaction is
- Seek help if you are being seriously threatened
- Stay within healthy drinking guidelines
- Ask for help from doctor or health/mental health professional if turning to substances or engaging in other behaviours that can harm you
6. Address the source of your stress
Once you have explored your reactions, turn your attention towards the stressor itself. Seek to identify strategies and solutions for reducing the demands placed upon you, setting boundaries, and communicating your needs effectively.
- Take a deep breath and look for ways to influence the stressor
- Set boundaries and communicate needs in a positive way
- Negotiate deadlines, get questions answered, or discuss problem behaviour
- Ask if there is flexibility to rearrange schedule or decline/say no
- Recruit help if needed and ask for what you need in a way that’s likely to get a yes
- Prepare for difficult conversations ahead of time and plan how to end it quickly
7. Seek professional support if needed
If you find yourself struggling to cope with stress, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for additional support and guidance.
- Identify your concerns and needs and do the best you can to take care of yourself
- Consider reaching out to a professional for help if feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or like you cannot cope
- Seek help if turning to unhealthy avenues to try to de-stress (e.g., substance use, excessive or restrictive eating or exercise)
- Reach out to doctor or other health professional or support line
Beyond Blue – https://www.beyondblue.org.au/
Headspace (12 – 25 years + Carers) – https://headspace.org.au/
Black Dog Institute – https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/
Reach Out Australia – https://au.reachout.com/
By embracing these strategies for managing stress, you are taking important steps towards a more balanced and harmonious life, reducing your risk for mental and physical health issues. Remember, you deserve to live a life filled with happiness and well-being, and these uncommon approaches can help you on your journey.
Why It’s Worthwhile To Address Stress In a Healthy Way
If you feel inspired to take the next step on your journey towards a balanced and harmonious life, I invite you to join our “Vision into Action” one-day wellness workshop. This transformative event is designed to help you create a clear vision for your overall well-being and provide you with the tools and strategies needed to achieve your goals. Don’t miss this opportunity to invest in your health and happiness – secure your spot today and begin the journey towards the life you deserve.