Signs You May Have Chronic Stress And How To Manage It
Stress and its related disorders are becoming increasingly common in the Western World. It’s more apparent than ever that chronic stress is leading to wear and tear in the body, contributing to a physical and mental breakdown.
According to studies, disorders such as hypertension (high blood pressure) have reached almost epidemic proportions. As a result, this has led to medical and psychological researchers to look into more ways of dealing with and managing stress and stress-related disorders.
So before we can treat something, it’s essential to understand it. I wanted to take a deep dive into the effects of stress, its cycle and how we can reduce it.
Stress is ‘the experience of unpleasant over- or under- stimulation which actually or potentially leads to ill-health.’
Firstly, human beings are incredibly resilient, and the brain is a complex and magnificent part of the anatomy. Without stimulation and challenge, humans wouldn’t evolve, grow or function. Like our muscles, brain tissue either develops or atrophies, based on stimulation; therefore, certain levels of challenge is healthy.
Also, it’s important to note that not all disease and disorders are attributed to stress. There’s a multitude of reasons; from a person diet to the environment, biological, behavioural and health care factors.
What defines stress?
Stress is the result of a clash between the challenges you experience and your belief in your ability to cope. Problems can derive from pressures which may come from external sources or from within you, and be a product of your personal value system, needs and expectations.
Unfortunately, stress is unavoidable, and there are periods wherein people are going to be exposed to levels that will lead to distress and anxiety. The difficulty is that each person responds to physical and mental pressure differently, so each case requires an alternative approach.
General Adaption Syndrome.
Hans Selye, Hungarian physician and the founder of stress research, coined the term “stress” in 1936 to describe the body’s response to change. He identified two types of stress: Eustress, what we see as the beneficial stress, such as an engaging work project; and Distress, which is real or imagined stress that puts more pressure on your system.
He also is known for the phrase ‘it’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.’
Hans was the first person to describe G.A.S. and explained that it was the body’s unique way of adapting to what it perceives as a threat, to better equip itself to survive.
The stages of G.A.S.(general adaption syndrome)
Phase 1 – alarm reaction
- The sympathetic nervous system kicks into action.
- Pupils dilate
- Breathing rate is increased to bring more oxygen to the muscles.
- Heart rate and blood pressure are increased to move blood around the body faster.
- The hypothalamus enables the release of glucocorticoids.
- Glucose is released from the liver to provide extra energy.
- Muscles tighten in preparation for a response such as fighting or running away.
- Sweating occurs to cool the body and allow more energy to be burned.
- Blood is drained from the face, and digestion slows down as more blood is made available for the muscles and brain.
- The bladder relaxes
Phase 2 – Resistance
Our body tries to counteract the physiological changes that occurred during the reaction stage.
- The parasympathetic branch of the A.N.S. (autonomic nervous system) attempts to return the body to a normal state by reducing the amount of cortisol produced.
- The heart rate and blood pressure begin to return to normal.
- Glucose is stimulated to store glucose as glycogen.
- Peristalsis (the involuntary smooth muscular movement of foodstuff through your digestive tract) is stimulated
Phase 3 – Exhaustion
If the stressor continues or recurs before the body has been able to recover, resources become exhausted. The body starts to show the effects of prolonged resistance to the aggressor, and no longer equipped to fight stress.
So whilst the body may be coping with the stressor its resistance to disease is compromised. Because of this, the physical response can also lead to a person struggling to concentrate and becoming irritable.
Continued exposure can also lead to:
- Low hormone stores
- Low blood sugar
- Kidney damage
- Reduced resistance to infection
- Increased activity to the immune system, so that it attacks healthy cells
- Illness such as flu, ulcers or heart disease.
- Feeling unable to cope
The problem we face is that the body cannot determine the seriousness of the ‘threat’, so regardless of the situation, it goes into fight or flight mode. The means that several times a day, we could be putting our bodies through these effects for minor issues; like forgetting the dry cleaning, getting the kids ready, doing the commute.
None of the above is life-threatening, they’re just inconvenient and irritating at the time. But the way we react to the stressors can cause these cycles in the body that last long after the situation has ended.
So we’ve seen how the body reacts in general adaption syndrome, so let’s take a look at the effects of stress in more detail.
Stress can affect you in the following ways:
The emotional effects of stress
- Depression is one of the significant emotional effects of chronic stress in our life
- Confusion or distracted thinking – people who experience stress often have difficulties with concentration, memory or logical thought. Later on, there’s more information on why it’s more challenging to access our memory with high levels of stress
- Low levels of mental activity, very little interest or motivation – this may be a symptom of helplessness or depression which may develop in someone who is experiencing continued stress,
- Low self-esteem
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Difficulty relaxing the mind.
- Avoiding others.
The physical effects of stress
A typical physical effect of stress is headaches and migraines.
- Heart disease
- Stomach complaints
- Chest pains, rapid heartbeat
- Low energy
- General aches and pains
- Tense muscles,
- Feeling run down, frequent colds and infections,
- Nervousness and shaking
- Aching jaw from clenching (clenching during the night is collective amongst those with stress)
- Loss of sexual desire or ability
- Dry mouth
As well as the symptoms above there can be physical stress from overexertion in exercise, and pushing to achieve goals far beyond the intended capacity of their bodies.
Consider also, those who work long hours or shift-hours where the circadian rhythm is jerked out of balance.
The proverbial ‘workaholic’ often suffers, primarily from physical exhaustion stemmed by deep-rooted psychological origins.
Skin problems can also be connected to an identifiable emotional basis. If stresses are not dealt with correctly at the emotional level, the can appear physically as an irritating rash or a similar condition until the problem resolves. It can become a vicious cycle as stress often flares existing skin conditions such as psoriasis which, as we know, is a long-lasting autoimmune disease.
The cognitive effects of stress
- Forgetfulness and disorganisation
- Racing thoughts
- Inability to focus
- Constant worry
- Poor judgement
- Being pessimistic or only focusing on the negatives
These impair logical thinking and can occur for a number of reasons. There may be a conflict at work or home; worry about our appearance or abilities or relationships, children, career or finances.
A problem which may seem irrelevant for one person may be a catastrophe for another. These conflicts are very real for those who are experiencing them.
In this sense, stress is highly subjective and herein lies a primary key to correcting it.
The behavioural effects of stress
- Physical difficulties when performing movements, due partly to reduced ability to control the body, trembling or shaking.
- Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
- Restlessness and fidgeting.
- Changes in appetite – not eating or eating too much
Also note: Slow movements without motivation, or even considerable periods of complete inactivity; these may be symptoms of helplessness or depression in someone experiencing continues stress.
Anxiety and stress
Anxiety is another significant emotional effect of chronic stress.
This centres around another part of our limbic system in our brains, which is the amygdala, this controls emotions and other reactions to stimuli.
Its function is to process memories, emotions, and responses to the environment.
Amygdala is Greek for the word ‘almond’. The almond-shaped structure is only about an inch long found deep in the temporal lobes, just a few inches from each ear.
This contains nerves which send incoming messages from all of our senses, as well as from organs, throughout our body. The nerves are also attached to other vital centres of our brains for the amygdala to send outgoing messages to.
When it becomes stimulated, it can cause intense responses of emotions. The amygdala is associated with:
- Autonomic responses
- Emotional responses
- Hormonal secretions
Its job is to keep us safe, but it can sometimes believe we are in danger when we are not.
It sends oxygen to our limbs in preparation for fight or flight, leaving less oxygen for our prefrontal cortex, making it difficult for us to think clearly.
As previously mentioned, fight or flight is a natural body reaction. For some, the body holds onto this reaction for long periods, and it places the body in constant, or sustained flight or fight mode creating long-term exposure to cortisol.
According to research, the increased activity of the amygdala is correlated with the reduced activity in the hippocampus; therefore when fear increases the brains memory decreases.
It may explain why those with an overactive amygdala suffer anxiety. It’s said that we perceive more things as fearful when the amygdala is stimulated, which, in turn, increases anxiety.
It’s said that with fight or flight the responses can be referred to as follows;
Anxiety is synonymous with flight | Anger is synonymous with the fight aspect
Addiction and stress
Another common issue is addiction. Stress and dependence often go hand in hand due to the impairment of the prefrontal cortex.
As this is part of the brain that controls reasoning, impulse control and planning, the lack of judgement can increase the likelihood of further consumption and addiction.
It creates a downward spiral that becomes difficult to recover.
This mental condition has been validated by biology because parts of the brain stop making and responding to serotonin (the happy hormone), which in turn makes us feel gloomy. This then makes us think negatively, and the attachment to pessimism strengthens, and without good serotonin response, we perceive more stressors.
The term “Learned helplessness” is used to describe the relationship between chronic stress and major depression.
Meaning you learn from having the control taken away from you, leaving you feeling helpless; this then leads you to take less control of your life. As a result, you lose the ability to identify coping mechanisms and respond negatively to your stress. This cycles into major depression.
It’s understood that the more toxic elements of our diet can have a depressing effect on us. However, it’s clear that the emotional strains are even more debilitating. Anything which directly affects our immune system is a severe threat to our health.
Burnout is a progressive condition characterised by a loss of idealism, energy and purpose.
It has been described as a syndrome of physical and emotional exhaustion, involving the development of negative job attitudes and a loss of regard and feeling for colleagues or family. The final stage of burnout can be dangerous.
This can leave the person with no reserves left to cope and any added pressure, or the slightest, additional stress can send the person into a severe mental or physical breakdown.
Stress management includes the physiological and psychological methods of reducing the harmful effects of stress.
It’s important to note that you are actively in control; you are the focus of change which you engineer.
Don’t make light of any stressors affecting you – if these stressors are placing you under pressure, you need to acknowledge it.
If something is stressing you, it needs attention no matter how trivial it may appear to others.
We are all human and wonderfully unique. Therefore, you mustn’t underrate yourself. Don’t feel inadequate because you seem to react more to stress than others around you. It may only be that they respond in less an obvious way.
The most vital requirements for stress management are awareness, acceptance, responsibility and coping skills.
First, you must be aware of the levels of stress and look for indications that it is present.
Be mindful of attributes in your character and behavioural patterns that are stress-related. Be aware of the causes of stress and find ways of managing it.
The second step to positive change is self-acceptance. What you are is the result of all your life’s experience. Change is always possible, but essential changes don’t happen in an instant. Don’t judge yourself harshly, be kind to yourself. Accepting what you are and who you are is an essential step.
The responsibility for change begins with you – whatever your stressors, you can instigate the necessary change.
There are four basic strategies:
- Build up general health through proper nutrition, rest, exercise and other positive health practices.
- Change the situation, or stated differently, the sources of stress.
- Change your mindset, i.e. your perception of, or thoughts about the stressors affecting you.
- Change your bodies reaction to stress, i.e. learn to substitute relaxation responses for stress responses.
A great technique I learned to react better to stressful situations is the ‘6-second rule’.
This method prevents the amygdala hijack (which makes us react through emotion rather than logic)
By waiting for just six seconds after a stressful encounter, the brain chemicals that cause amygdala hijacking to reduce, allowing you to think more clearly and react differently. Often I find the situation is nowhere near as bad as my initial reaction, once I take just a few seconds to rewire.
In those 6 seconds, try breathing deeply or focusing on a pleasant image to help prevent your amygdala from taking control and causing an emotional reaction.
If you’re on public transport or work, try the square breathing technique. This is where you imagine a square. Breathe in deeply for four seconds along one side, hold for four down the other side, breathe out for four along the bottom, hold for four as you return up the other side. Then repeat.
What this does is get oxygen back into your body, relaxes the muscles, calms the mind and allows you to think with reason. You can do this anywhere, and you don’t have to remove thoughts or feelings or sit still.
What I find is that because you are focusing on the square with the counting and the deep breathing, you naturally defocus from the issue(s) causing the stress.
Allowing you to prepare yourself for returning, thus feeling a sense of control and clarity.
Our fascinating cells are the smallest living units of our bodies, and each cell is like a tiny factory. These cells must be nourished entirely and continuously, and the waste efficiently eliminated. Without, the cell will either; function inefficiently or it will die.
Therefore health begins and ends at a cellular level.
We can see that all nutrients that support the immune system are required during stressful times, and this is a reason why it becomes compromised; over time, which can lead to more serious issues.
It may be beneficial to follow these processes:
- Reduce as many stimulants as possible such as junk food, tea, coffee, alcohol (in particular those who suffer from anxiety as stimulants can heighten the effects) and replace with wholesome foods.
- It’s said to be good practice to supplement the diet with a good Vitamin B Complex, Vitamin C and Vitamin A.
The body and immune system require all these vitamins in times of stress.
- Glutamine and Amino Acids create a calming effect and are absorbed into the blood and passed through the brain.
- Some herbals teas are said to have calming effects but be aware that green tea, although it is an antioxidant, it contains high levels of caffeine.
I made the connection between green tea and anxiety as it would leave me with heart palpitations and an unnerving feeling after drinking.
Of course, it will affect everyone differently but be mindful of how you feel afterwards and make your own decision.
Adaptogens seem to be the buzz word when it comes to natural remedies to elevate stress. Speaking to Ian Marber – one of the U.K.’s leading Nutritionists – I asked how effective it is, and if it’s proven to be beneficial in reducing stress.
“Adaptogens are substances – usually derived from herbs, that purport to help the body adapt to stress. Perhaps by regulating or encouraging adrenal glands to produce stress hormones, or maybe to make less of them.”
So like many things it’s difficult to judge if something can make a lot of difference, is it a domino effect, where because you’re making a healthy choice, you make more healthy choices, therefore, it’s accumulative?
“Adaptogens can help but to what extent depends on many factors. I question whether they do much in isolation. For example, if the person was to carry on with, say, not enough sleep and too many stimulants, and hope that a herbal supplement makes all the difference.
I feel they work best when combined with other lifestyle measures. Adaptogens aren’t generally in foods, except for magnesium, which can support the normal functioning of the adrenal glands”
So should we consider including them in our diet?
“To be honest, I don’t know how well adaptogens work. There is some interesting research, cited by manufacturers of the supplements, but surely lifestyle changes have more longevity? Exercise, regular sleep, mediation and rest for example…..?” says Marber
I agree, picture this; you head into a big meeting with your Ashwagandha tea. Is it going to stop you feeling stressed? Probably not, no. However mixed with a balanced, healthy lifestyle, it could alleviate stress collectively.
What would be more beneficial is having a good nights sleep, a relaxed commute and a nourishing breakfast beforehand. It’s all in relation and creates a strong chain.
How to manage General Adaption Syndrome
Firstly, you need to understand what triggers your stress response.
I’m sure it will differ for each, so being conscious of your feelings and internally monitoring your behaviour is essential. Then, when you identify these triggers, you will be more aware of the situation before it arises and allow you to make lifestyle changes to reduce these stressors.
Of course, it is not always possible to avoid stress, but having the tools will bring your body back to a balanced state. In turn, this will help you promote a sense of wellbeing.
In conclusion, it is essential to realise that however well you appear to cope with everyday life, you will experience stress to some degree. Small amounts are helpful and can improve your performance, your efficiency and productivity. However too much may generate disabling emotions such as overwhelming anxiety, depression and tension, resulting in difficulty in thinking in a clear way, and a wide range of behavioural responses.
With this in mind, people are now looking for ways of managing chronic levels of stress with C.B.T. therapy sessions and other mindful activities.
Seeking advice and professional therapy is a positive step. If we break our arm, the surgeon will reposition the bones and set them to keep them in place – the body then does the rest, you are the one who does the healing.
All you needed is help with the first part of the treatment. The same goes for therapy.
These professionals are trained to understand the brain, its functions and human behaviour. They will help you understand the formation of your thoughts, and how to create new ones, then you do the rest.
All it is is knowledge of our mind and body and guidance to help us navigate and thrive.
Help is available so if you need advice and support please talk to someone.
A total of 17 hours was spent researching the effects of stress in humans, numerous books and articles – both online and print. Including advice from one of the U.K.s leading nutritionists Ian Marber which add up to information, you can trust.
Please note: this is not a substitute for medical advice, if you have any concerns, please contact a professional who will be able to assist you.
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