By: Jen Baker-Porazinski, MD Family Practice Physician
Stress is the body and mind’s response to the demands of life. In a biological sense, stress can enhance survival (our reaction to meeting a bear in the woods, for example). In small amounts in everyday life, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you conquer a fear or provides extra endurance or motivation to complete a difficult task. Prolonged or intense stress however, can contribute to serious health problems (such as heart disease, obesity, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure and diabetes) through the release of hormones that were meant to protect us against threats.
The “fight-or-flight” hormone cascade evolved to prepare our bodies for defense or escape from aggressors. When triggered by a perceived threat, a small part of the brain (the hypothalamus) sends an alarm throughout the body through nerves and hormones that triggers the adrenal glands to release hormones (including adrenaline and cortisol) to ready the body for action. This alarm system also sends signals to parts of the brain that control mood, motivation and fear.
Adrenaline speeds up the heart and increases blood pressure whereas cortisol increases glucose (fuel) to the bloodstream and increases the availability of repair substances. Cortisol also decreases functions that are not necessary for fight-or-flight, such as altering immune system responses and slowing digestion, reproduction and growth. Normally this system is self-regulating and turns off once the perceived threat has resolved. However, in some instances (for example, recurrent life stressors) the alarm system stays turned on overexposing the body to stress hormones which can disrupt almost all of the body’s normal functions.
Acute stress is the most common forms of stress. This is the stress that occurs from pressures of the recent past and worries about the near future. While it can be exciting in small doses, acute stress is overwhelming with prolonged exposure. Fortunately this type of stress is easily recognized by most people and is therefore highly treatable and manageable. Some symptoms include emotional distress (depression, irritability, or anxiety), muscular problems (tension headaches, back pain), stomach upset (heartburn, diarrhea or constipation), palpitations, dizziness, difficulty breathing and even chest pain. Recurrent acute stressors can lead to persistence of symptoms and may require professional help.
Chronic stress (caused by poverty, dysfunctional family life, work stressors or global problems such as war) is more difficult to manage. Many people get used to it and therefore do not attempt to reduce it. Chronic stress can be life-threatening, leading to heart attack, stroke, violence and suicide. This type of stress often requires extensive medical and behavioral help.
Not everyone who experiences recurrent stressors, however, becomes ill. There are many factors that affect how an individual reacts to a stressor. For example, a slight difference in the genes that control the stress response can cause an overactive or underactive alarm system. In addition, environmental factors (such as neglect or abuse in childhood) can cause people to be more vulnerable to stress as adults.
Recognizing your body’s own unique response to stress is paramount to reducing your stress by learning to manage it in more healthy ways. Symptoms of stress can be physical (headaches, back pain, irritable bowel, fatigue, insomnia), mental (anxiety, depression, irritability, memory problems, helplessness) and behavioral (eating disorders, substance abuse, social withdrawal, angry outbursts). It is important to remember, however, that some of the symptoms of stress can be caused by a medical condition (for example, hyperthyroidism), medication side effects, vitamin deficiencies and excessive intake of caffeine or alcohol. Therefore, if symptoms are severe or do not respond to your management approach it is important to speak with a health professional.
Fortunately, there are many ways you can help manage your stress. The first, as mentioned, is recognizing and regarding your symptoms as your body’s way of communicating that it needs maintenance. In this way, you can help your body correct itself and reduce the high cost and care of chronic long-term health problems. Because stress is not usually limited to one part of the body or our life, it is important to address the whole self (body, mind and spirit) when working on stress reduction. In general, you can combat stress by taking care of yourself. This includes sleeping and eating well, laughter, and surrounding yourself with supportive family and friends. Regular exercise (by helping to use up stress hormones) not only releases stress but also improves overall energy and mood. In addition, many people find benefit from hydrotherapy (such as a sauna, hot tub or steam bath).
Relaxation techniques can reduce stress by slowing down the heart rate and breathing, lowering blood pressure, reducing muscle tension, improving concentration and reducing frustration. For example, a few minutes of meditation daily can restore peace and balance, an effect that lasts throughout the day. Meditation helps clear away information overload (stressors) of the day and has been shown to reduce numerous other health problems. Yoga is beneficial for stress reduction in addition to overall improvement of fitness, weight loss and management of chronic health problems. Yoga uses poses and breathing, bringing together physical and mental aspects that help achieve peacefulness of body and mind. Tai chi, “meditation in motion”, promotes serenity through gentle movements that connect the mind and body. Other stress reduction modalities include massage (including craniosacral therapy), guided imagery, aromatherapy and herbal medication and supplements.
If these relaxation techniques do not provide adequate stress reduction or symptom relief, consider speaking with a healthcare provider. Managing stress is not only beneficial to peace or mind, it may lead to a longer, healthier and happier life.