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Stress Revisited

Although stress has always been a part of human life, today we are seeing levels of stress and stress related diseases on a pandemic scale world-wide, abnormal by historical standards.

I often run workshops for small groups on various health-related issues, many attended by millennials (born between the early 1980s and mid-1990s). Many of these people, especially those in their mid-30s, are facing unprecedented levels of mental and physical illness, with the majority having been diagnosed with at least one chronic illness. Whenever I ask attendees whether they believe they are stressed, almost everyone raises their hands. Many school children today also describe themselves as stressed. For this reason, I believe there is a need for greater awareness of the serious health consequences associated with chronic, elevated stress levels and, more importantly, of the fact that there are tools available to us to help us deal more effectively with it.

What is stress?

Many people are familiar with the saying ‘stress is a killer’. Many also do believe that stress impacts their health. However, few really understand how. There are several important facts to know in order to understand stress:

  1. Stress has numerous pathophysiological effects on the body (i.e. functional changes that occur in the body as a result of it).

  2. There are many internal and external factors that trigger the stress response, such as poor nutrition; physical, emotional, mental trauma; infection; toxins; relationship problems; work pressure; family issues; hormonal imbalances.

  3. The stress response depends on the individual and on the type and severity of the stressor, and can vary from alterations in hormone balance to more life-threatening symptoms.

  4. Stress evokes a hormonal response. Hormones are chemical messengers that travel throughout the body, activating targeted cells and coordinating complex processes to take place within those cells. The most important hormones activated when stressed are cortisol and adrenaline.

  5. The acute stress response, also known as the fight or flight response, evolved to activate in the case of a life-threatening emergency – i.e. fleeing from a wild beast or staying to fight a neighbouring tribe. However, today our bodies are unable to distinguish between a life-threatening stimulus and the day-to-day stressors mentioned above. Acute stress is short-term and serves a purpose. During periods of acute stress, we become heightened performers, focusing better, thinking more clearly, and having more energy and brain power to work well into the night to complete work in time for a deadline. Once the stressful situation has passed and the stress response deactivated, normal bodily functions are restored. However, when the stress response is chronic and activated over prolonged periods of time, it starts to cause wear and tear on the body, both physically and emotionally.

  6. Many people today do not realise the extent to which stress is impacting their health until it begins to manifest in specific symptoms.

  7. The stress response can be activated by a mere thought. Therefore, negative thoughts and constantly worrying adversely affect our health.

With our fast-paced ever-stressed lifestyle, our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly

The effects of chronically elevated cortisol

With our fast-paced, ever-stressed lifestyle, our bodies are pumping out cortisol almost constantly, wreaking havoc on our health, disrupting nearly every system in the body and often resulting in:

  • Raised blood pressure

  • Suppressed immune system (or, alternatively over stimulated leading to autoimmune diseases)

  • Increased risk of stroke and heart attack

  • Allergies

  • Impaired fertility

  • Accelerated ageing

  • G.I. problems, leading to indigestion, acid reflux, pain, bloating, imbalanced gut microbiome, and even ‘leaky gut’

  • Fatigue and lack of energy

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Weight gain or difficulty losing weight Stress is often accompanied by an unhealthy lifestyle and is looked upon as a major factor in many ‘lifestyle’ diseases. High cortisol is increasingly being implicated as one of the many possible root causes of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. Higher cortisol over time can lead to insulin resistance and has therefore also been linked to type-2 diabetes.

Now for the good news

When addressing stress, removing the causes of the stress (the stressors) would be ideal, however in many cases this is simply not possible. Stressors are an unavoidable part of life. The good news is that implementing simple and enjoyable stress management strategies can drastically reduce the effect that stressors have on your overall stress-response. Click through to my short tips article on coping strategies for reducing elevated stress levels.

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