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What is stress?

This month’s hot topic is stress management.  This is such a massively important topic…more-so now than ever before.  We live in a society that strives for more…for bigger…for better…all of which comes at a price.  And even if you don’t subscribe to this way of living, stress’ familiar face is never too far.

My goal for this article is to shed light on what stress actually is – and in doing so, help build your awareness of why it is referred to as the “silent killer”.  As the month progresses, I will share simple and natural tips to help you manage your stress and offset the negative health effects it can have in your life.

What is stress?

Even though we all talk about stress, we are not always clear on what it actually is.  A clear definition of stress is clouded by the fact that it can be present in both good or bad situations, and has both positive and negative qualities (as you will see below, it all comes down to balance).  Also, what you and your neighbour consider stressful may be completely different – it is very subjective and your coping mechanisms will play a large role.

So…what is stress?  It is the physical and mental/emotional reaction of your body to demand(s) being placed on it.

The stress response

There is a term you may be familiar with – “fight-or-flight”.  This refers to the understanding that when you encounter a stressful situation, your body has been hardwired to respond in one of two ways: stay and handle it (“fight”), or remove yourself from the situation (“flight”).  Basically, no matter the source of the stress, your body responds as if you are face-to-face with a bear…and your mind’s only concern is to subdue the bear (self-defense to preserve your own life) or, more likely, to get the hell out of there!

For you to be able to “fight-or-flight”, your body must undergo certain changes – this is called the stress response and occurs in three phases:

1) Alarm:

Epinephrine (aka adrenaline) is released by your adrenal glands and leads to increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, and energy mobilization (making energy available so you can handle the stressful situation).  Theoretically, this is a good thing right?  If this response fails to happen, that bear will make you its dinner!  It is normal and healthy to experience this alarm phase of the stress response.  However, if the alarm phase progresses for some time or your coping mechanisms are not sufficient (poor sleep, diet, etc), you can enter the resistance phase of the stress response.

2) Resistance:

Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands and leads to increased sugar and fat in the blood (for energy), enhanced brain use of glucose (fuel), and increased availability of substances that repair tissues.  Just like the alarm phase, this cortisol response serves a sound purpose to help us manage persistent stress.  However, cortisol curbs “non-essential” functions to ensure energy is being diverted to keeping you alive (don’t forget about that bear!).  In other words, your body is not concerned about reproductive, digestive, or immune function at this time.  And this is where you see a growing number of chronically stressed individuals suffering from frequent colds/infections, fertility/sexual function issues, and digestive concerns.  Additionally, elevated cortisol promotes increased visceral fat (the fat around the midsection associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease), decreased bone mineral density (increasing risk of osteoporosis), and insulin resistance (increasing risk of diabetes).

This phase will last as long as the stressor is present and/or as long as your resources to manage the stress hold up.  Once the stress becomes too much or your ability to manage the stress is overwhelmed, exhaustion sets in.  The transition to exhaustion is accelerated by the fact that this is where some individuals turn to alcohol/drugs, make poor dietary choices, slack on physical activity, and lack sufficient sleep.

3) Exhaustion:

At this point your adrenal glands are toast.  They have been pushed to the limit and are now not able to mount an appropriate “fight-or-flight” response.  You are bear dinner at this point.

Just as too much cortisol was a problem, too little cortisol is not healthy either.  Too little cortisol leads to increased inflammation, ulcer formation, increased likelihood of developing autoimmune complications, increased pain, insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, and osteoporosis (interesting, we saw a lot of this with too much cortisol too…this reinforces that balance is key).  Mentally, one may experience poor judgement, insomnia, and even personality changes.  Further, this phase of the stress response promotes aging and can lead to chronic fatigue.

Take home message

The stress response allows us to respond and interact with our environment.  It is vital to our survival.  However, when we are exposed to excessive stress for prolonged periods of time, we set ourselves up for poor, degenerating health.  Chronic stress lives up to its “silent killer” title when we fail to develop our awareness of its power and fail to do anything about it.

I hope this has given you a greater understanding of stress and a deeper appreciation for how much of a role it plays in your health.  Stay posted for some incredible articles on stress management that will be posted through this month…and don’t forget to check out the Guided Meditation CD Series to help you manage stress.