This is a topic that is particularly close to me right now as I have come to the realisation that I have been living with extremely elevated levels of stress for quite a long time now. I think everybody on this planet may have experienced elevated levels of stress in this day and age, but what I would love to delve into is exactly what is happening to us physically, because I certainly did not know, as well as how we recognise that we are indeed stressed and what we can do about it.
What is happening in our body when we are stressed?
We all say “I am stressed” from time to time but have you ever wondered exactly what is happening in your body and why? Well it all stems way back in our evolution when we developed the innate need to have a fight or flight system built into us, so we didn’t get eaten by scary animals. Now please keep in mind that I am not an expert on how our brains work but here is my best go at explaining why we feel like we do when we are stressed. I have aimed for mid-level detail as it definitely helps to have a solid understanding.
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the system that is in control of all the things that we are not consciously controlling, such as: breathing, heart rate, digestion and other internal organ functions. There are two parts to this system - the sympathetic and parasympathetic. When we are faced with external information about our body or environment the ANS will either stimulate bodily functions normally through the sympathetic, or inhibit them through the parasympathetic. The sympathetic is in charge of preparing our body for fight or flight and the parasympathetic is in charge of conservation and restoration.
So, when our eyes or ears see or hear something like a car coming towards us, they pass the information to our amygdala, which processes it very quickly, and if it is a perceived threat it will alert the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus controls many super important functions required for our survival like body temperature, thirst, hunger, fatigue, sleep and circadian rhythms, but in this situation it is responsible for activating the sympathetic nervous system and requesting the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. We have all felt a surge of adrenaline - it is responsible for increasing heart rate, dilation of airways and pupils, release of sugar into the bloodstream and slowing down of the digestive processes. We have a surge of energy and our body is ready to deal with the threat with a fight or flight response. This process is so fast and effective that the adrenaline is pumping even before our visual processing has worked out what is happening, so you are ready to jump out of the way of the car if need be.
What if this does not stop though?
Now this is all well and good if we are jumping out of the way of a car or a sabre tooth tiger but what happens next is where the problems occur. Once the initial adrenaline surge subsides, the hypothalamus kicks off the next process known as the HPA axis. This is a combination of work by the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. It is responsible for keeping the sympathetic system in alert mode and if the perceived threat is ongoing, this trio will work to release cortisol. Cortisol has many functions within the body but having elevated cortisol levels for extended periods of time can have hugely detrimental effects on our health, including blood sugar imbalance, weight gain, suppressed immune system, cardiovascular and fertility issues and of course our favourite, gastro intestinal issues.
Normal function would be that once the sabre tooth tiger has decided we are not looking that tasty and walks off to find a different meal, our parasympathetic system kicks in and reverses everything that the sympathetic just did to us. Unfortunately with chronic ongoing stress levels, our system never gets a chance to recover and stays in this heightened state. This makes it very hard to relax, sleep, recover and digest. Our parasympathetic system likes to kick in during quiet times, like having a relaxing meal, because in order for us to get all the available nutrition from the food we need all the good hormones and enzymes used for digestion to be flowing. When we are flooded with cortisol our digestion and absorption are compromised and we can end up with indigestion, malnourishment as well as irritation and inflammation of the mucosal lining in our intestines. Sound familiar? This can be the beginning of IBS and proctitis and, not surprising, people with these conditions have shown signs of improvement when they learn to manage their stress. On top of this, the inflamed lining tells our body to produce more cortisol so the party continues.
So what can we do?
Well luckily there are many ways that we can take control of this situation, as I have just recently done. The first part is to start listening to your body so you can work out not only when it is in an elevated state but also what the triggers are that are putting it there, so you can avoid them in the future. I have found that just having a good understanding of what is happening inside my brain and body has allowed me to be a lot more aware of exactly how chronic this was for me and to start taking steps to resolve it. There are plenty of activities that you can partake in to help manage your stress like meditation, practising mindfulness, exercising, yoga, the list goes on. Each person is going to find different things that work but for me it is exercise (especially surfing), meditation and also reminding myself to place lower values on the stressors in my life. All you need to do is take a couple of steps out of your house at night and look up to realise that the issues you are having are probably pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things and that a focus on the good things in life can be so powerful.
I will end by suggesting a good read. I am sure there are many good books out there but “Self-Reg” (How to help your child and you break the stress cycle and successfully engage with life) by Dr Stuart Shankar has opened my eyes. If you have children, this may just change how you view their behaviour and how to manage it, and even if you don’t, you will probably learn things about your own behaviour that will surprise you.
Since it is Stress Awareness Month I recommend having a close look at how you, your family and friends are coping and make the time to work with them to make things better.